Emily M. D. Scott
I preached this sermon in Advent, 2016. The text is Mary's song, the Magnificat: Luke 1:46-56.
I hope that you had a teacher who changed your life.
I had a few, but the one I’m thinking of tonight is Mr. Julezter,
my history teacher Senior year.
The truth is that the class I took my senior year was one of those filler classes.
It was called “Senior Issues,” whatever that means.
I guess it was sort of about current events?
Anyway, it was a class that was supposed to be easy,
and a lot of students took it right before graduation.
I kinda snuck it in under my parents’ radar.
But Mr. Julezter was sneaky too --
he wasn't gonna get out of there without having us consider some real issues.
One afternoon toward the end of the year
Mr. Juletzer brought in a stack of fashion magazines,
and he asked us to go through them, looking for advertisements.
As we found them, he held them up to the class and asked us to notice what kind of messages were being communicated
in these glossy ads for watches and high fashion clothes.
We noticed the more obvious things first:
that women tended to be unclothed while men were clothed,
that women were sexualized more then men,
that there were clear standards about how both men and women should be shaped.
But then we went deeper.
We started to notice that women seemed to be draped over the men in a lot of the adds,
as if they were accessories instead of people.
And then we began to see other things —
there were a surprising number of women who were wearing dog collars or being led on leashes.
There were also subtle allusions to violence against women.
In one ad I remember vividly, for a watch:
a women lay on the ground, her limbs in unnatural directions and her eyes vacant.
The shadow of a man loomed over her.
Mr. Julezter asked us to surmise
what this messaging communicated.
“There are no accidents in advertising,” told us.
After that lesson,
I started looking more carefully at the advertising all around me,
picking up on signals and messages I had previously simply absorbed or ignored.
But now I saw things I hadn’t seen before.
Now I was awake to a new reality.
Now I was awake to the world I was living in.
Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University
published a piece on his Facebook page this weekend
which has now been shared over 11,000 times
and re-published by the Dallas News.
In it, he gives 20 lessons from history about what our nation might learn
from nations that have experienced authoritarian governments over the last century.
Already we have seen worrying signs from the incoming Trump administration
of leaders who do not respect or uphold free speech,
have no regard for the right to public assembly and protest,
and criticize the free press as “biased” when stories don’t go their way.
Dr. Snyder’s first lesson in resisting authoritarian governments is:
Do Not Obey in Advance
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
This might seem a little bit abstract at first,
but think back for a moment to the lesson I learn in Mr. Juletzer’s class
Every day, in almost every moment of our lives,
we are surrounded by messages
that tell us who we are and who we should be,
how the world works,
what’s valuable and what’s of little value.
We are immersed in constant messages
through advertising and television
about what it means to be alive in this nation,
and it many ways we formulate who we are in response,
Imagine the ways we have already conformed to the incoming administration.
Perhaps I can blame Mr. Juletzer that I stopped reading fashion magazines a long time ago.
I don’t have a television or listen to the radio.
I’ve done almost everything I can to cut commercial messages
about who I should be, what I should look like and how my life should operate out of my perception.
So...maybe this is why my trip to Target Saturday Night at Atlantic Terminal
was so completely and utterly overwhelming to me.
On Saturday I wanted to buy some candles at Target
because it is my belief that this is going to be kind of a long winter.
When I walked into the shopping center on Atlantic Ave
I was immediately overtaken by loud, blaring music and red and green everywhere,
Johnny Mathis insistently crooning that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,”
the mannequins in Victoria’s secret seemed to loom toward me aggressively
and signs and messages urging me to Buy, Buy Buy!!!
Lesson Number 10: Practice corporeal politics.
Timothy Snyder writes,
Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people.
Power wants our bodies softening in our chair.
Power wants our emotions dissipating on the screen.
Power wants us constantly engaged in the act of consuming.
Power wants us lulled into the notion that presents under the tree
are the same thing as being free.
This is the empire: the forces in the world that conspire
to keep us lulled into sleep.
Immersed in these messages, we are not awake to truth.
Then, there is Mary.
Mary, our brown-skinned, middle eastern teenager,
pregnant but not married,
and carrying in her womb the child of God.
Then, there is Mary,
whose song, in a few short verses,
startles us AWAKE from our slumber,
Then, there is Mary, who tears down the empire with her words
and creates, in that gap, where the empire used to be,
the realm of God.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,”
she says, as if she herself, in her body,
can amplify God’s realm into this one.
“For he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”
And the translation of the word lowliness here is not mere humility,
but, in Greek, more akin to humiliation.
Mary is not just humble,
she is someone who society has debased.
And this is where God is born.
Not with those who have the most or are the most,
but with she who has, and seems to be, the least.
“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,”
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
And here we see the paradox of God’s power.
This is what Luther called the “Theology of the Cross:”
that God is located,
not in military might, political power or brute physical strength,
but in lowliness, and powerlessness.
This is “down” theology.
That to find God, we go not up, but down.
I’m telling you this because I believe that,
over the next several years,
we are going to need to be very clear
about being people of the cross,
and not, as Luther put it, people of “glory.”
We are going to need to dwell,
not in the world that is advertised to us,
in the pages of a glossy magazine,
not in the world that is sold to us
at the Target on Atlantic Terminal,
not in the world that is broadcast to us on our screens
as we soften in our chairs,
and certainly not in the world
that is being pieced together for us
on the top floors of Trump Tower, or soon,
in the halls of the White House.
Instead, we are going to need to dwell,
inside the music of Mary’s song.
We are going to need to be Magnificat people:
people who magnify God’s realm.
We are going to need to be God’s people,
and God’s people only:
people who lift up the lowly.
Who care for the widow, and the orphan, and the stranger.
We are going to need to tear down the empire
with our words and our actions,
and dwell in a different kind of world
that is of God’s making.
If you’ve never noticed it before,
that the definition of what a church is.
(Or at least that’s what a church should be.)
A place where we practice living by the rules,
not of the market, or of capitalism of of corrupt government,
but by the rules of God.
This is the place where we make a pocket of God’s realm,
right in the middle of the world as we know it,
and tear down the empire,
by breaking bread and sharing a cup,
and telling the story,
of a king who did not rule in power
but died in humiliation.
And follow him to that cross.
So take that, Johnny Mathis.
It is the most wonderful time of the year.
But not for the reasons you think.
I believe that resistance to empire
means being awake.
I believe that resistance to empire means living inside Mary's song,
right in the middle of this crumbling world.
What does that look like?
Lots of things.
Coming to church and breaking the bread.
Writing a poem or performing in a play.
Giving money away instead of spending it on stuff.
Silencing the noisy voices of advertisers that ask you to conform to something that isn’t of God.
And lifting our voices.
Lighting a candle, and making our homes places of welcome,
perhaps in ways we never expected.
And attending meetings,
and working across boundaries,
and calling our representatives.
And, like Mary, singing our song.