Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 21, 2003


The First Page of the End of Despair
The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad
Associate Professor of Preaching
Union Theological Seminary
New York, New York

(This sermon is also available in audio)

Gospel Reading: Luke 1: 46-55

I’m grateful to see you here today, especially if you’ve been here the last two days! These sermons have not been easy, but these days haven’t been easy either. On Wednesday we traveled to Jericho to see Rahab sitting at her window in the wall of the city--that place between insiders and outsiders. We saw the crimson cord hanging from her window--the red thread that promised deliverance. It’s still here today calling us to remember the faces of those we see as outsiders, the people we would conquer.

Yesterday we moved closer to Jerusalem, hearing Jesus once again call us to listen to the Godly dissonance of the gospel in the midst of so many other sounds. In the midst of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Valiant Strike Jesus calls us to Operation Servanthood, which doesn’t sound quite so exciting and probably won’t get on TV. I hope you didn’t leave worship depressed. Perhaps a waffle downstairs cheered your spirits.

But it takes more than a waffle, doesn’t it? Sometimes my preaching students go on for page after page laying out the problems of the world. At Union [Theological Seminary] we’re accustomed to analyzing systems of oppression and it’s possible to go on for many pages about such things. Then the preacher ends with a sentence that’s supposed to make it better, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you. Amen." Well today I feel a little bit like those students. Having called us to remember the faces of Iraqi people inside their walls, having called us to listen to the Godly dissonance of servanthood, I went searching for something bigger than a waffle to make things better.

What I found was Mary’s song. That wondrous song of celebration and joy Mary sang after she heard the words of her cousin Elizabeth. It’s intriguing to me that Mary DIDN’T sing after she the angel Gabriel’s visit. It wasn’t until she heard Elizabeth say, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb." I thought about a friend of mine who was a pastor in the Netherlands for several years. She told me about a woman whose granddaughter was scared to go to bed in the dark. Her grandmother went in to her and assured her, "God is with you all the time, even in the dark." To which her granddaughter replied, "Oh, I know God is with me, but sometimes I need someone with skin on."

Well, I guess Mary needed someone with skin on--even after she’d heard the voice of an angel. Maybe that’s why we come to church to sit here with these other people. We need someone with skin on to help us keep believing. So it was that Mary didn’t sing until she heard the voice of Elizabeth. But then she sang her heart out. "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant." Then Mary spins out a vision of hope that had little connection with reality, a song that contradicted the evidence. Let me put her words in second person, directly spoken to God:

You have shown strength with your arm.
You have scattered the proud in
the thoughts of their hearts.
You have brought down the
powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with
good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

But the Roman Emperor was still on the throne. In case we’ve forgotten, Luke reminds us that Mary’s child was born when Emperor Augustus sent out a decree that "all the world should be enrolled." The Roman Emperor could tell "all the world" what to do. But still Mary sang. She sang even though she knew rich people ate sumptuously--as her son would later point out--while poor people searched for crumbs that fell from the table. She sang a different vision--where the poor and the lame, the blind and the maimed would be invited to the banquet. Her son would talk about that, too. He became known by the company he kept and the people he ate with.

Oh how she sang. Actually, her song wasn’t completely original. She borrowed it from Hannah who sang centuries before. (Fortunately, this was long before copyright laws so lots of songs from what we call the Old Testament were sung again and again in Jesus’ time.) Mary made the song her own and she knew it was true in spite of evidence to the contrary. She knew that both the lowly and the powerful would have to be changed for the world to be transformed. She knew the hungry would be fed when someone dared to say to the well-fed: "You’ve had enough now." She sang because God had blessed her very lowliness--as though it suddenly dawned on her that her very lowliness, her woman’s body would bear God’s Word to the world.

Mary is still singing, in spite of evidence to the contrary. She knows full well that if you can’t imagine the world to be different it never will be. And she won’t be quiet until it is. Nor will she give in to despair. She’ll insist on hope and joy in the midst of it all. The best way to learn Mary’s song is to listen to the people who are singing it now.

One of my students helped found the University of the Poor in 1995 when she was a college student. It’s not really a campus as much as a movement. She visited Tent City, a community of poor people who lived in tents in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. These homeless people came together to support one another and work for change. The first thing they did when they came to Tent City was to turn all their food stamps over to the community. Nobody kept their own food stamps. Everything was shared. Nobody was hungry. It was as though they caught a glimpse of Luke’s picture of the church in the book of Acts:

There was not a needy person among them for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

People from churches began to visit Tent City and the people from Tent City visited the churches. Nobody was ever the same after those visits. The University of the Poor was born out of those exchanges. The faculty members are mainly poor people. There is no tenure, in fact, they’re happy when people move on. Through it all they keep singing Mary’s song, and they’ve taught a lot of people to sing along.

Can we keep singing with Mary? Maybe you’ll wait until the war is over. Maybe you’d like more evidence that hope isn’t an illusion. Maybe Mary should have waited until Rome had fallen, until the powerful had been scattered, until the hungry were all fed. Maybe she should at least have waited until her baby was born. Some would say she sang too soon. But that’s what God calls you and me to do. Sing God’s dissonant song even when it seems too soon. God still longs for someone with skin on to bear the song of hope to the world. Whenever I am tempted to give in to despair, I remember Mary’s song. And I keep a poem from Adrienne Rich on my desk at hand. It’s a poem perhaps only city-dwellers can fully grasp because it begins like this:

Despair falls:
the shadow of a building
they are raising in the direct path
of your slender ray of sunlight…

Can you see it? She lives in an apartment with one window and now a building is going up to block out the light. Despair feels that way to the poet. She can’t do anything about it. The building will go up. She comes home from work and sees they are filling in the framework. She gives her plants to a friend across town. She realizes "that seriously you live in a different place though you have never moved." She notices things hadn’t seen before: the woman who sleeps in the barred doorway, the man darting for food in the supermarket trash. Were they always there?

You have your pride, your bitterness
your memories of sunset
you think you can make it straight through
if you don’t speak of despair.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?
You yourself must change it.
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing?
You yourself must change it.
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

1986 "Dreams Before Waking," from Your Native Land, Your Life, pp. 44-46, by Adrienne Rich. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

That’s where Mary stood when she sang--she stood on the first page of the end of despair.

Copyright 2003 The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad

Luke 1:46-55
46 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."

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