Rev. Danielle K Bartz December 12, 2021
Luke 1:46-56 “Song of Wonder”
Ten years ago, this congregation came together to make a public statement. As a community steeped in the Christian faith, you said to one another and to the world that in God’s Kingdom everyone is welcome. Everyone is a beloved child of God. Everyone reflects the face of God. Everyone. Everyone, no matter their gender identity or expression, sexuality or sexual expression is welcomed and embraced in the full life and leadership of this congregation. For ten years you have maintained and enhanced this stance as an Open and Affirming congregation, and have done so declaratively and without apology. First Congregational Church remains the only faith community in Winona to make this public statement.
The United Church of Christ, as a denominational whole, has always been on the leading edge of progressive and inclusive faith. The UCC was the first denomination to ordain an openly gay man and transgender person. The UCC has the highest percentage of ordained clergy who identify as women, at 51%. But even with that denominational tradition, many local churches have yet to become ONA. In fact, 10 years ago when this church became ONA, you were amongst the just 16% of UCC congregations to do so. In 2019 (the last year we have complete data for) the percentage of UCC churches that are Open and Affirming was just 32.6, and the vast majority of those churches are the largest in the denomination and are located in liberal urban centers.
I am outlining all of these data points because I want to make it clear that for a small, non-urban congregation to be Open and Affirming for 10 years is incredibly rare. That means this UCC congregation, a part of an already progressive denomination, has been a leader in welcome and inclusion. 10 years ago marriages between same gendered couples were not recognized legally. 10 years ago the vast majority of people believed that gender was binary, either male or female, and anyone who said their gender identity to not fall into either of those categories was confused. 10 years ago Pride celebrations were considered taboo, or even sinful. 10 years have passed, and tremendous progress has been made in our world. And we still have a long way to go to reach that hoped for future when justice for all of humanity will reign and love will rule. But for 10 years, this congregation has been living in that hoped for future. In a world when Church so often lags behind change, this congregation has proven that Church can lead the world into change – prophesying a future of hope and possibility, and living that prophesy into existence.
It is so remarkably fitting, an act of the Holy Spirit one might argue, that this Sunday’s lectionary reading is Mary’s prophetic song of joy and justice. Commonly referred to as the Magnificat, this is the song that Mary sings echoing her ancestor in the Jewish faith, Hannah, who sang one similar upon the birth of her son and future prophet Samuel. Hannah sang of a future of justice, a future of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Hannah sang of hope for a future not yet in existence. But, Mary sings of a future that is now. Hear it again: “God has shown the strength of God’s own arm, God has scattered the arrogant…God has brought down the powerful…God has filled the hungry with good things…”. These promises of God, Mary sings, have been fulfilled. The future the world is hoping for has already arrived. Hannah sang of the hope, and Mary sings of the fulfillment. In this way, Mary is a prophet and a preacher – both declaring a better world is possible, and showing the world it is already here, we just need to embrace it.
Mary sings this song as soon as her cousin Elizabeth greets her. Mary, young, unwed, and pregnant, has gone to the home of her elderly cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant in her old age. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is a priest, a leader in the Jewish religion. But, he questioned and doubted the angel’s announcement of his wife’s conception, and was struck silent by God for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So, Zechariah, unable to speak, must listen. Undoubtedly he heard Mary’s song. Undoubtedly he heard her words of prophecy. Undoubtedly he heard of the future steeped in God that she declared had arrived. Mary’s pregnancy was considered a sin punishable by death, and one can only imagine how Zachariah would have reacted if he could have spoken in reaction to Mary’s song and her very appearance in his household. Instead, he is forced to listen as she declares herself blessed, and the recipient of God’s great things.
“Imagine the audacity of a young peasant girl, scandalously pregnant, peddling an angel story no one believes, living on the unremarkable outskirts of empire, to declare without shame or apology that she is favored by God. This is not the song of a spiritually timid human being, ashamed and fearful. This is the song of a young woman on fire.” This is the song sung by a person whose society told her she was not equal or loved by God, nor deserving of God’s favor. And yet, her song of wonder prophesies a future of hope and possibility, and, more importantly, births that prophesy into existence by living it as now.
And now, imagine this. Rather than singing this song of justice and joy just once, imagine it is the lullaby she sings quietly each night to the infant Jesus, while she nurses and rocks him to sleep. Each night she sings words that fills Jesus’ heart and spirit with a burning desire for a world in which everyone is called blessed. And now imagine, that adult Jesus, walking the dusty paths between villages – curing the sick, feeding the hungry, embracing the outcast – and in his ears he hears his mother’s soft voice singing him to sleep…”God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”. His mother’s words giving him the strength to live that world into existence, to point to it in such a way that people finally look and see. His mother’s words comforting him in the Garden and on the cross, and filling the space as the stone to the tomb is rolled away.
Ten years ago this congregation made a choice to live a hoped for world into reality. 10 years ago this congregation looked at all of the beloved creation of God and called everyone blessed, long before the rest of the world would. Ten years ago this congregation said the future of God’s Kingdom is now, and we will point to it until everyone can see. But, this cannot be a song that is sung only once. We must continue to sing it, filling the hearts and spirits of everyone we encounter with a burning desire for justice. We must continue to sing it as song of welcome and love for everyone, especially those who have been told they do not belong. We must continue to sing this song and to live our lives as if God’s Kingdom is not just possible, but already in existence. Mary’s song can guide our work: it begins with joy, just as all of our work must begin. Joy at God’s presence in our life. Joy in God’s call for our ministry. Joy in God’s grace when we stumble. Joy at this community God has brought together. Joy for 10 years of prophesying a future we live into existence. We begin with joy – and then continue with promises completed, pointing to a world in which everyone, everyone, is truly and completely recognized as the image of God. We must continue to live and sing the world we want into existence for all of our neighbors, and for each other. Amen.
Oh Holy Flame, spark of all creation,
You who we greet as the Great Flame in our lives,
Providing shining light for our vision
And soothing warmth for our hearts;
Help us be attentive witnesses today
To the extraordinary wonder
That walks among us
Daily in grace.
As we remember the violence
That has destroyed so many lives
Of people who you call Beloved,
Grant us the strength and resolve
To look upon this great pain
In reverence and sobriety,
Without turning away
Or denying the reality
Of this terror.
So, too, kindle within us power
To not let pain deter us
From struggling onward
In justice and in peace
To make the present
A different story.
As the fires of experience burn scorching hot
In the life of every person,
Grant that these fires may burst forth
Into a world eager for the warmth
Of the truth of abundant life and thriving for all.
Forge from this fire a new world –
One filled with justice and with peace
One blessed by strength and tenderness
One called to challenge and to soothe
One able to strain and to heal
One that is grieving and rejoicing
We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, whose heart and Spirit were filled with the words of your Kingdom. And we pray in the way he taught us…Our Father…