The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Let us pray: Oh God, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen

One of the challenges of familiar Christmas characters, like Mary, is that it is virtually impossible to recapture the initial shock of her story. We just know them too well, so Mary can become just another nativity character in the box that we drag down from the attic once a year, positioning her next to the cow and the sheep, with Joseph sort of interchangeable in there with the shepherds. There was one year when our son was about three years old, Mary was in the nativity set alongside a Yellow Matchbox Ferrari. That’s not a bad way to travel compared to the donkey, I suppose. The scene was shocking, but for the wrong reasons. 

Today’s scripture is the shocking song Mary sings. I promise you it has not been covered by Mariah Carey. Mary takes the mic and sings about a new world, a world where the lowly are favored and the proud are scattered in their lack of imagination, a world where the hungry are filled and the rich are given their first bite of yearning, a world where history itself folds and scrunches up to such a degree that past and future generations are all looking at this one moment in time together. History has its eyes on her. And it’s a song with so many layers.

First there is the layer of who is singing, a young girl whom everyone assumed was about to slide off the page of history like so many other desperate mothers but who instead was found by God’s spotlight.

Then, there’s the layer of what she sings. It is the music of movement not simply a moment.

Finally, there is the layer of the female soloists in the scriptures who came before her, maybe a few of you may know them. Miriam and Hannah and Deborah. And the layer of how all generations to come will consider her blessed, and Mary was right about that. This is a statement of defiant joy. With so much of history unrolling around her, from past to future, I might even call this the original Eras tour.

            [Three notes on the piano]

But then we tame her. And it’s not just Hallmark who can tame Mary. The church can do it too, sometimes reducing her to a blue head shawl and the idea of perfect motherhood. Sometimes turning her into lovely Christmas ornament without any of the pesky lyrics of her song. Sometimes fashioning her into a figurine instead of a prophet. And then some people even make her into inflatable yard decoration instead of the one whose very soul magnifies the Lord. And, I have nothing against Latin, heck, I majored in Latin, when we title her song, Magnificat, it might be intended to honor her, but it can also make her song feel remote, as if her dream of God’s world and her joy in the midst of enormous change is better suited for stained glass than real life, as if her dream and her joy is best left to the preachers and professionals, rather than something we should actually try.

So this year, I tried very hard to listen to her song with fresh ears. And you know what, her defiant joy gave me goose bumps. It gave me goose bumps to hear God’s good news through a woman who could have been wildly stressed but who was singing with joy instead. I began to wonder aloud what it might mean in this world if we actually listened to her song, if we actually trusted that God was still at work upending the punishing systems of the world, if we let joy have the microphone in our world again, grabbing it away from the usual tone-deaf soloists of doom, blame, or cynicism who take up so much airtime.

            [Three notes on the piano]

The more I sat with it, as I tried to imagine how it might have sounded when the early church sang it. Scholars believe it was one of their hymns even before Luke wrote his Gospel. And suddenly it reminded me of a refrain from Hamilton. The world turned upside down.

If you don’t know this musical, Hamilton is about Alexander Hamilton and the founding of this country, except all the singers are non-white. At some point in the musical, the characters stare into the spotlight and sing The World Turned Upside Down. And like Mary’s song, there are many layers to this. There is who is singing, all these voices who had been long silenced. There is what they are singing, they are singing about a new nation. And there’s the layer of all the people who sang the same words before them. I learned this week that The World Turned Upside Down was rumored to have been an actual bar song during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda scooped up these old lyrics from another time when the world had actually changed and brought them out for a new day. Thank you, Randy Lee for that intel. And there are still more layers beyond that. The World Turned Upside Down was sung as a protest song in the 1640s when the British Parliament banned the more joyful celebration of Christmas. And even before that, The World Turned Upside Down was a quote from the Book of Acts, which you might know was written by the same person who wrote down Mary’s song. I share this with you this year simply to remind us that there has always been something defiant about joy, especially the kind that goes along with Jesus. This kind of joy a Holy No to the merchants of doom, blame and apathy in our world. And I love that joy is intertwined with God’s mercy. If you have been hard on yourself for not feeling instinctively Christmas-y this year, maybe it feels like mercy to know joy is both a total gift and significant effort, it is cosmic and systemic, more than enjoying a bubble bath or some sense that everything in your life is fixed.

            [Three notes on the piano]

This is Gaudete Sunday, a special Sunday where the church intentionally focuses on Joy. We light the pink candle. Crazy, right? But little actions like that remind how counter-cultural it has always been to lean into joy instead of letting doom, blame and cynicism have the mic.

As part of my sermon research, I asked many of you what brings you joy. By far the most popular answer was grandchildren. But also in there were…. Hearing someone in my family spontaneously laugh. Reaching the top of a mountain. Lying in the sun. Reading under a comfy blanket. Finally letting go of comparisons, comparisons to other people or even former versions of myself. Family. One of you said, “I didn’t come from a great family, but I notice that I have one now.” One of you said, “I remember hearing Mary’s song one year when I was expecting. I thought to myself, babies always turn the world upside down, and this one is mine.”

            [Three notes on the piano]

 I have noticed many authors these days writing about joy as a counter-cultural note to strike. Katherine May wrote a bestseller called Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age. She goes to great lengths to describe the loneliness of our times. And, she thinks some of that comes from the loss of ancient spiritual practices and also a lack of attention to our world. The remedy, she claims, is being intentional in our search for joy, and that leads to enchantment. She defines enchantment as “wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory. It relies on small doses of awe, almost homeopathic: those quiet traces of fascination that are found only when we look for them.”

Ross Gay has a new book out called Inciting Joy. He speaks to those of us with cloud of grief around us that we think needs to pass before joy like the sun can shine again. But Ross Gay wrote, “The way I think of joy — not only does it not exist absent sorrow, but it actually requires sorrow to exist. The way I think of joy is that it is what is luminous about us when we’re helping each other, when we’re holding each other through our sorrows.”

             [Three notes on the piano]

If there are big changes going on with you right now, and you really aren’t sure how it will all turn out, maybe you have a kind of morning sickness of your own in the stomach-churning uncertainty of it all, (1) maybe comparisons that just weigh you down, maybe you could follow Mary’s lead and insist on joy this year. Maybe you speak a holy “No” to the parts of this world and the parts of your brain that promise only doom. And who knows, maybe the Holy Spirit has come upon you too. Maybe that cloud over your head is the shadow of the most high God.

And rest assured: The good news is that the baby will come, regardless of how many items remain on our to-do lists, regardless of how prepared we are.  God is going to break into the world, once again, by bringing us this child, this savior.  And if we stop, if we take another moment to wait, to be filled to the brim with hopeful expectation, we might be surprised by our experience of God.  We might be surprised by the new thing that God is doing today.  It is not likely to be what we expect—it is likely to turn the world upside-down.  And maybe, just maybe, it will cause us to burst into song. (2) 

(1) With gratitude for this idea to Barbara Brown Taylor, “Singing Ahead of Time,” Home By Another Way.

(2) With gratitude to Rev. Jessica Tate for her brilliant paper from The Well, a lectionary preaching group.