The Hope-Song: A Sermon

I wrote this sermon as a part of The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” 2021 Advent & Christmas Series. For more information, visit https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons-that-work/

The Rev. Pauli Murray once wrote that “hope is a song in a weary throat,” and amid this hopeful season, amid this weary age, we would do well to consider what such a song sounds like. It’s easy to miss sometimes, the hope-song, because it doesn’t always sound the way we might expect. We are too easily distracted by the proud aria or the ironic riff to listen for the soft, tremulous music that hope makes.

Hope is the song of empty karaoke bars, of late nights and of last dances, of a husky voice crying out a melody to defy the encroaching night. It is the song one sings under the breath, an insistent memory, perhaps, or a reassurance on the lonely walk home. It is the warbling note that has no obvious splendor other than its defiant insistence to be heard. The hope-song is not elegant, but it is faithful. It is honest. It is the song one offers up when the song is all that’s left to offer.

Consider this music, then, as we travel with Mary to Elizabeth’s house. Forget for a moment the lush choral arrangements of the Magnificat. Don’t be fooled by the prophetic boldness of the words alone. Remember that there is a fearful precariousness to her position. She is a young woman walking uphill in every sense of the word, seeking the comfort of a familiar face when everything else has suddenly become so very unfamiliar. We might wonder: did Mary sing to herself on the dusty road to the hill country? Was it a song that her own parents once taught her that she practiced on parched lips? Or did she call it up from somewhere deeper within, from the Spirit-infused cells of her very depths, determined to give voice to what was true, even when her life seemed to be caught in uncertainty?

Regardless, she sings, and it is indeed hope in a weary throat, reverberating into eternity: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Like any hope-song, there is defiance here, along with the joy and the fear. Yes, Mary says, yes, my soul, my very self magnifies the inexpressible holy name of God. The soul that belongs to this body in all its frailty and in all its fecundity—this is a place where God is revealed. Obscure, vulnerable, enmeshed in the tragic history of my people—I may be all of those things, but God is disclosed in them, not despite them, and God has chosen to take part in this world through me. 

And so, I will sing!

I will sing though I am weary, though I am frightened, because in the singing I place myself within a story, not just a circumstance. I sing a song of victory, not of victimhood. I am a teller of hard truths and I am the bearer of hard hope, the type that survives—it is my people’s hope, and my own.

Do we sing a new reality into being, or do we sing to pierce the veil of delusions, to uncover what is already true? The Kingdom is already, and it is not yet, but either way, Mary knows what must be sung, both because she carries the King within her womb, and because she is herself the Queen—a wisdom-figure, worthy in her own deep humanity, as each of us is, to discover and proclaim the hidden, unfolding power of God. Her song belongs to her ancestors, and it belongs to the child she will nurture. It belongs to all of us. It is ancient, and it is new. It is forever.

And thanks be to God for that, because we need hope-songs now, just as desperately as Mary did then. We need to be reminded of the dream that is encased in the tender core of humanity—the dream that God has placed therein, the dream that God invites us to bear into the world, the dream which refuses to be dispelled even by centuries of disappointment and degradation.

And it is especially important for us to remember, in the cacophonous holiday season, that the song that tells of this dream is not always the loudest or the most popular. It is, instead, the one borne of deep, soul-stirring wisdom. The one that, when you hear it—even when the throat is dry and the voice is garbled by tears—still the melody is recognizable because we have been singing it forever.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

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.

But what do we do with this song of Mary’s? How do we make it truly our own in a new and urgent time? Do we put it on a t-shirt or a bumper sticker? Do we write a few more books about it? Host a conference to assess the meaning of the words? Arrange it into a new musical setting?

We could. We do. We protect ourselves, sometimes, by turning Mary’s song into an ornament when, in truth, it demands everything we have.

Because that’s the thing about the hope-song: you don’t really know it, you can’t really claim it until you yourself have sung it with a weary throat. You can’t grasp the words until life has grasped at you, until you have been forced to walk up a few hills of your own, whether by choice or chance. And so, if we really want to sing the song, if we really want to mean it, we must first ask ourselves how attuned we are to the precarity of our lives and those of our neighbors. We must examine how vulnerable we are, and how open we have been to the risk of Jesus’ invitation to follow him, on the path first trod by his mother.

And in our self-examination, we might find that we have indeed been brought down low by life, that we are hungry for good things, and that this song of hope will lift us up if we have the courage to trust in its promise and lend our voices to its chorus. For the weary among us, the challenge is to show the world that we are more than our present despair.

Or it may be, for many of us, that we find ourselves to be the ones already in high, comfortable places, the ones who have never relied so much on hope as we have referred to it, because we are ensconced in other, richer melodies—the ones that lull rather than vivify. If so, it is time for us to wake up. It is time for us to come back down to earth and stand on holy ground. Because it is only from there, where Christ abides, that we can truly begin to live in the way God dreams we might.

Either way, Mary’s voice is calling out to you. So, whoever you are, wherever you find yourself, follow the sound of the hope-song. Let it guide you into the place of encounter with your most unencumbered self, and into relationship with the Holy One who calls you onward.

Mary has shown us the way, she has shown us the words, and she has shown us that while hope may be well-acquainted with weariness, it points beyond it, too, toward the place and time when a new song will be born—one of hope fulfilled, of rejoicing, and of rest. We are still learning how to sing that new song, but it is coming. And it is now here.

Ordinary: A Christmas Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 2:8-20.

Not quite as planned. A bit haphazard. Maybe somewhat underwhelming, even, after so much hope and expectation and hardship. Confusing and, for some, tinged with fear. And yet, somehow, in its startling ordinariness, still happening, still a quiet miracle, still infused with unspeakable grace. 

Am I describing how many of us have experienced the holiday season this year? Or am I speaking about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago? 

Yes.

On this Christmas, perhaps more than any in recent memory, we perceive the hidden, frank domesticity of the Nativity, for we, too, like the Holy Family, have been gathered in, with few options, seeking shelter above all else. 

But despite our recent immersion in the spare, the low-key, and the unadorned, it must be acknowledged that, even with all that we have learned and lost this year, with all the comforts foreclosed, we might still struggle to wrap our heads around the Savior of the world coming exactly in the way that he did—as an infant, born to an average family in a humble town, in a common peasant home, with the guest rooms past their capacity and animals crowded in for the night. Few expected, then or now, for the Messiah, the promised Holy One of God, to be, by all appearances, so very ordinary.

But so he was. A baby as fragile as any other, born with no particular privileges or advantages apparent, at a precarious moment in his people’s history. 

I know that I say to myself every year that I understand this, that I love how God came to us in suprising humility, but then I wonder, when I look at the habits of my life and when I look at what I am tempted by in the world around me: do I understand, really? Do I love him, just as he is, this child in the straw, who offers love, but not safety?

Because even now, even though we know better, even though we’ve told the story a thousand times and more, we still keep looking for Jesus to enter the world elsewhere—in a palace, in a capital city, among splendor and power and success.  We still admire and imitate the people who live and work in those places, and in our dominant western culture we tend to shape our values around their opinions and agendas. We long for the child of Bethlehem, but we keep looking for an emperor. 

And even in the history of the church this can be true, when we have tried to retroactively ennoble the Christ child in our imagination–ensconcing him in gilt and velvet and crowns, sometimes forgetting that these are subversive symbols of how he turns earthly values on their head, not actual depictions of his birth and life. 

But thankfully, blessedly, try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that he was not born as an actual king—and we are reminded in the Christmas story that God did not enter creation through the ornate front doors to be greeted by the servants, as it were, but instead came in the back way, through the service entrance, seen only by those who tend the sheep.  

And what good, good news it is that this is so. 

Because it means, for average people like you and me, that God was never interested in being unattainable. God was never interested in being insulated from us. God never wanted to be known as someone who is too busy, too important, to notice and regard with care the details of our lives. On the contrary, God was born in such an ordinary way to signify that it is here, in the midst of our vulnerable, complicated, boring, unimpressive, precious little days that he desired to make a dwelling place. 

He wanted his own life to be as plain and sweet as ours sometimes can be—a life of both chores and of chocolates—because he is Emmanuel—God WITH us—and that means with us through all of it: the good, the bad, and the long stretches of the simply OK. And thanks be to God that he visits us there, because most of our lives are made up of the simply OK, and I, for one, long to be known and loved even in those moments where I feel entirely uninteresting. 

The manner of Jesus’ birth is good news, also, because it means that we need not become impressive, powerful people in order to take part in God’s life or God’s mission. No matter what family we were born into, no matter how much money we make, no matter how many times we have failed or fallen down, we have not missed out on the chance to participate in the things that God truly cares about, because those are, in the end, quite ordinary things—feeding, clothing, visiting, listening, forgiving, remembering, grieving, rejoicing. They are the things that you can do wherever you are, no matter who you are. And the day that we realize that these things are all that God requires of us, that they are the elements of a truly important life…that is the day we are free. 

Let that day be today, this eminently ordinary day, as you gaze at a baby in the manger, with common shepherds as your companions. Let God’s humble birth, his little bed of hay, his quiet Mother, teach you that your life can be enough, will be enough, humble and little and quiet as it, too, might be, if you will only give over your love, your heart, to be pierced and shaped— not by the Savior we expected, but the Savior that we needed. The Savior of the everyday.

It is for him we say:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” AND glory to God in the lowliest birthing place.

“On earth peace,” AND in our ordinary hearts, peace, this Christmas day, and every day to come.