Mary's song of justice
This is the slightly edited text of a sermon I preached recently. I had particular reasons for not mentioning LGBT+ justice in the sermon (a difficult decision), but you can see above an image of the t shirt I preached in. The text I was given was Luke 1.46-55.
About 15 years ago I was working for a Baptist church in Chelmsford, and a group from the local Catholic school came to visit. They were studying different Christian traditions as part of their RE syllabus, which was why they wanted to see inside a Baptist church. The students sat in the main worship space and I had them look around them and point out things in the building that were different from Catholic places of worship. At one point, while explaining some aspect of Baptist worship, I said: “We don’t worship Mary.” “Er, neither do we!” one of the teachers quickly responded. An important teaching moment for me, showing my ignorance of Catholicism.
In Protestant churches, we don’t pay much attention to Mary - an over-correction, perhaps, in response to the (mistaken) belief that Roman Catholics worship the mother of Jesus. This morning, however, we’re going to spend some time reflecting on Mary’s prayer
In this passage, Mary pours out her praises to God, who has chosen her to carry Jesus, God’s Son, the saviour of the world. She has gone to visit Elizabeth, her cousin, who is pregnant with the baby boy who will become John the Baptist. And when Mary arrives, baby John leaps in his mother’s womb. The women are both filled with awe and joy, and Mary prays. Much of her prayer expresses God’s holiness, God’s mercy, God’s kindness, God’s power:
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
But then her prayer takes an unexpected turn:
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.
The proud are scattered.
The powerful are brought low.
The rich are sent away with empty hands.
Perhaps Mary is conscious of her own humble background: ‘For he took notice of his lowly servant girl.’ Or in the New Revised Standard Version: he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. She feels unworthy of the great honour that God has bestowed upon her, by choosing her to carry and give birth to the Son of God. She is just a poor young woman from a humble background.
But she is also making universal claims here about the action of God, about God’s priorities. It’s not just that he has given her honour, a ‘lowly’ young woman, but that this is what God does. God brings down the proud and lifts up the humble. God feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty-handed.
In fact, this reads much more like prophecy than prayer. It sounds very much like the 'prophetic perfect' tense, when the prophet declares that something has happened already, because the promise that it will happen is so sure that it may as well have already happened.
God HAS scattered the proud.
God HAS exalted the humble.
God HAS filled the hungry with good things.
God HAS sent the rich away empty.
There is a strong thread running right through the Old Testament and into the New, which is clear that God expects Israel to care for the poorest and least powerful in society.
In the Old Testament Law it’s the widow, the orphan, the foreigner (have a look at Deuteronomy chapter 24). The widow, because she had no husband to support her in a patriarchal society. The orphan, because they had no parents to support them. The foreigner, because they did not own land that would support them.
Others are also to be protected – Isaiah and Amos are very clear on this. Workers are to be well treated. Poor people are to receive justice - no one is to be wrongly imprisoned. Unfair taxes are condemned. In Isaiah 58, God declares through the prophet that true worship is to set free the oppressed, to treat workers justly, to feed the hungry, to care for people in need.
In the New Testament - it's especially clear in Luke, but also in the other gospels - Jesus is for the last, the least and the lost. He heals beggars, whose illnesses or disabilities would have prevented them working and thus left them destitute. He makes time for women, who were seen as the property of men, such as the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak – interrupting him on the way to heal the child of an important man. He welcomes children, who were also seen as property, and whom the disciples wanted to shoo away. In the story of the Good Samaritan and in the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s child, Jesus helps and commends the faith of ethnic and religious minorities.
Here Mary is declaring anew something that is very clear throughout the Old Testament, and which her Son Jesus will proclaim anew through his life and ministry: our God is the God of the poor and powerless.
These issues of poverty and injustice are just as live for us today. We are experiencing a cost of living crisis, and – as they always have – the poorest in our society will suffer the most. Inflation is at 9% and rising. Wages are not rising in line with inflation. Energy and food bills are soaring. Evictions are believed to be likely as people are unable to pay their rent, and increases in homelessness are predicted.
We live in a society which welcomes white Ukrainian refugees gladly, and wants to send Afghan and Syrian refugees thousands of miles away to Rwanda. We live in a society in which the evil of slavery still occurs, hidden in plain sight, in nail bars, car washes, massage parlours.
So what does Mary’s prayer mean for us? I suspect that it depends which of us is reading it. If we read the text as someone experiencing poverty, we hear that God longs to meet our needs.
If we read it as someone experiencing marginalisation – as a woman, as a person of colour, a person with a disability, an enslaved person - we read that God is on our side. God is lifting us up. Though I am disempowered now, in the kingdom of God, I have a position of honour.
But maybe this sounds a bit empty – what practical use is it to declare that God wants you to be well fed when the reality is that you’re not? Or to say that you have honour in God’s invisible kingdom, when you are dishonoured here and now?
Maybe part of the answer is the knowledge that God is on your side – that you are God’s favourite. There is shame and stigma that comes with poverty. There is shame that comes with racism and misogyny and ableism and shame that black people and women and people with disabilities should not have to carry, but sometimes do. There is internalised marginalisation – when you start to believe that your needs are not as important as others.’
And here Mary declares that you are God’s favourites. After all, Mary’s son, Jesus Christ, embraced powerlessness and vulnerability. As we read in Philippians 2, he emptied himself, took the position of a slave, and walked the path of obedience to death, even death on a cross. And so God gave him the name that is above all other names, so that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
A few years ago, there was a question posed in a Facebook group for women ministers asking: what are the positives of being a woman in ministry? My first thought was, we have the advantage of being on the edge. This is what I wrote: I have begun to wonder if the marginalisation we can (not all women, not all the time) experience is a positive benefit - we are able to empathise with the marginalisation and vulnerability of others and experience in a deep way the wounds of the Christ who spent his time with the broken and became broken himself. He gave up his power so when we are disempowered, we are strong.
Maybe some of you are thinking, well that’s just great, I’m a white man, or I’m wealthy, is Emma saying that God doesn’t care so much about me? Well no, I’m not saying that, and neither is God. And while I have spoken about my experience of marginalisation as a woman, the fact is that I too carry a lot of privilege – benefitting from the evils of white supremacy, from education, from wealth. And I believe that God is looking to those of us with privilege and wealth to join with people experiencing poverty and marginalisation to make this prophetic prayer come true. Mary is declaring something of the way God sees us – the first shall be last and the last shall be first - and she is declaring something that is promised for the future. And we can start making that future promise a present reality.
We collect donations for the food bank in this church, and that’s fantastic, and the need is, sadly, only going to increase. We can feed the hungry, but we can also put pressure on our government. We can ask why people are going hungry in a country like ours with such wealth. We can offer homes for refugees, and we can campaign for their rights. We can write to our MP. We can read books and watch films that explore experiences and identities that are different from ours, with a teachable spirit, willing to learn from others.
These are all huge issues, and it can be overwhelming to think about them. Here's a small idea that captivated me. I love watching Dragon's Den - it's a BBC series where entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to multimillionaires. Two black women recently pitched their business, called March Muses. One of the women told the story of decorating the Christmas tree with her daughter, who asked, “Mummy, can angels be black?” She was suddenly struck by the importance of her child seeing people who looked like her in the Christmas decorations that adorned their house. So they set up a business sourcing and selling black Santa Clauses and black angels figurines, 'to bring some colour into Christmas.' I'll be putting one on my tree this year.
And so, dearly beloved children of God, the good news is this:
In your powerlessness, in your poverty, in your marginalisation, God is saying – I am on your side. I am for you. You are my precious treasures.
In your privilege, in your wealth, in your power, God is saying – help me change the world.