Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55, December 12, 2016, FPC Holt

Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55
December 12, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-12-11-slide-1-lukeOn the Wednesdays we have Committee Meetings here at church we have a time of devotions based on the scripture for the upcoming Sunday, and so this past week we reflected on this text. I can’t name who it was exactly, but someone said upon reading this passage what stood out to them was the word “magnifies” and that this magnification brings Christ more clearly into view. Christ more clearly into view. This image has stayed with me throughout the rest of this week.

2016-12-11-slide-2-magnify-christmasYou see, the word “magnificat” comes from the Latin for “magnify,” so of all of the parts of this song, the magnification of God is at the heart of it. And there’s something about this season for me that could use a bit more clarity. I turn on the radio and hear of all the ways I could be spending money or events I could be attending. I open Pinterest or Facebook and see all the traditions I could be establishing with Calvin and David, or the perfect display of food that I could bring to my family’s celebration. If I’m not careful I spend a lot more time looking at to do lists than looking to the savior whose birth we are remembering.

What would it look like for our souls to magnify the Lord?

2016-12-11-slide-3-maryFor Mary it meant giving her full self in service of God’s kingdom. I don’t believe it was simply a matter of surrender, rather it was an act of co-creation, a divine collaboration of God’s incarnation and Mary’s humanity. She refers to her lowliness and acknowledges how worth is transformed in God’s economy: power brought down, lowly lifted up. Jesus comes as the revelation of love from God and the revolution of justice for Mary and all God’s people.

2016-12-11-slide-4-magnify-jesusWe magnify the Lord through our own collaborations with God, seeking God’s will and acting out of the creative capacity that God has given us. Our acts of love and justice make space for God’s kingdom to be manifest in our communities, families, and individual lives.

2016-12-11-slide-5-ashley-presbyteryThis past week at our presbytery meeting we had the absolute delight of hearing the stories of two seminarians moving through the ordination process from the status of inquirer to candidate, one of them being our own Ashley Bair. It was incredible to hear how each of them in their own way was living into the call that God had placed on their lives. Through their respective passions of justice and peacemaking, imagination and creativity, Jesus’ incarnation was magnified and God’s love for God’s people was made clearer. After hearing both people speak, one of the pastors of the presbytery was so confident in the hope of their gifts for ministry that he jokingly said, “well, I guess I can die now!”

2016-12-11-slide-6-angel-and-maryMost, however, don’t feel a defined call to ordained ministry or are visited by an angel who spells out the ways that we will “magnify the Lord.” Given the frustrations that a lack of direction can bring us, it’s tempting to say that following God’s will was less complex for Mary.

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It can be easy to take Mary’s joy at face value. She has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus, why wouldn’t she be joyful? She’s going to be celebrated for generations to come! How lucky is she? But things were more complicated than this song may lead us to believe. We know after all that she was bringing Jesus into a world that didn’t look kindly on women, or the poor, and particularly not unmarried pregnant women.

2016-12-11-slide-8-boy-jesus We also know that though Jesus was sinless, it was not necessarily easy to be his parent. There’s only one account of Jesus as a child and it involves him breaking away from their traveling group, staying behind at the temple, and essentially scaring his parents to death when they thought he’d been lost. I’d imagine that this wasn’t the only story of his rebellion throughout his childhood. Divinely guided or not, any parent would be stressed out trying to keep up with a child as precocious as this one story paints him to be.

2016-12-11-slide-9-adult-jesusAnd then of course, there’s Jesus’ adulthood. How different things look for Mary a little over 30 years later: her son, her beloved Jesus is arrested, mocked, beaten, and crucified. 2016-12-11-slide-10-simeonAs Simeon tells Mary at Jesus’ temple dedication, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). Just in that first week of parenthood I’m sure that prophecy gave her several gray hairs at the thought of it.

2016-12-11-slide-11-maryThis soul, all too soon to be pierced by grief, is first the site of God’s magnification, bringing God close, not just through a magnifying glasses optical illusion, but through living and breathing, flesh and blood incarnation. It’s not about pointing to some divine presence in the skies, but rather pointing to our God at work in the right here and right now. In the same way, she points to how in God the lowly aren’t just comforted where they are, but they are given positions of honor and their voices are valued.

Lighting a fire with a magnifying glass

Lighting a fire with a magnifying glass

But magnifying doesn’t just provide clarity, it can also serve as a way to focus light, even to the point of creating fire. Sometimes that focused light-turned-heat looks like anger at injustice, protesting and speaking out against oppression. Sometimes it looks like creative passion, making beauty and art that bring hope or move people to compassion. And sometimes it looks like shining a light on what has been kept secret in the darkness, speaking out about abuse or shame, telling the truth about who and whose we are, knowing that the truth will set you free. All of these are ways that we, and others of God’s children, magnify God’s love, and create more light through our lives.

2016-12-11-slide-13-more-light More Light is a phrase we as a church family know personally, as we identify as a More Light Congregation. In November of 2015, our session voted to affirm this statement: “Because we are a people who follow the risen Christ, we move that the First Presbyterian Church of Holt become a More Light Church to offer a true community of hospitality for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in society.”

It was interesting to me to learn of the origin of this phrase. Though the organization by that name did not come about until 1992, the phrase is traced back all the way to 1646, a full 210 years before our congregation was even founded. 2016-12-11-slide-14-robinson John Robinson was a spiritual leader of the pilgrims who founded the Plymouth colony. As they set sail on the Mayflower in 1646 he sent them off urging them to be open to new religious teaching, saying, “if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry.”  In other words, Robinson urged his congregation to follow what we as Presbyterians declare, that we are reformed, and always being reformed according to the word of God. Speaking of the limited knowledge of God by anyone teacher Robinson said: “For though they were precious shining lights in their Times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light as that they had received.”

2016-12-11-slide-15-mary-magnifiedPerhaps this a way that God will be magnified in your soul: through shedding light on a theology of God’s expansive love. Through acknowledging all people as God’s beloved children. Perhaps there is another frontier of compassion and justice that you are called to ignite through your magnification. Where are the powerful that God will bring down or the lowly to be lifted up? How can you collaborate with our God of justice to pair flesh and blood with the divine?

May our souls ever magnify the Lord. Amen.

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you