Text: Luke 1:26-38, 47-55 (the Angel Gabriel; Mary's Song). Dedicated readers may notice that this sermon is a slightly edited version of one by the same title that I delivered two years ago in Didsbury on the same text.
From the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2007, I sang in a choir in Toronto called the Bell'Arte Singers. We weren't a professional choir. In fact as with many community choirs, each of us had to pay an annual fee for the privilege of being a member. But I didn't begrudge the money because I loved singing in this choir.
Bell'Arte had a Christmas concert the first year I was a member. One of the many things I liked about Bell'Arte was the program booklet produced for each concert. I found the notes to be quite detailed and interesting.
For that 2005 concert, the booklet commented on the meaning of Christmas and our hopes for a world of greater peace, joy and love. And that section ended with the sentence, "Another World is Possible." I was struck by this, since "Another World is Possible" was a key slogan of the youthful anti-globalization movement of those years. You know -- the activists who show up for World Trade Organization talks like the big one in Seattle in 1999 and who protest against corporate greed.
A 2011 version would have meant trying to relate the concert to the slogans of this Fall's Occupy Wall Street movement.
Just before the concert began, I pointed out the line "Another World is Possible" to the conductor and asked if he had written it. He told me "no," but said that he agreed with the idea. In fact, he said that our concert that evening would prove the slogan right. Our Christmas Program that evening, he said, would nudge the world maybe a millimetre closer to its salvation. And while that might seem like an odd idea, I found myself agreeing with him! That night as a choir we were doing our small bit to help change the world one joyous song at a time.
When I began full time studies for a Masters of Divinity degree in the fall of 2007, I had to leave Bell'Arte because I was also still working full time, and something had to give. But I loved the Bell'Arte choir and it made me a better singer . . .
In our Gospel reading today, Mary, upon learning that she is to give birth to Jesus, sings a song. It is a song of joy, love, and hope for a better world. In her song, she rejoices in the mercy and justice of God and predicts that the hungry will be filled and that the rich and powerful will be brought down from their thrones.
This passage from Luke is one of the most famous of the entire Bible, and it is especially liked by musicians. Many different composers have set Mary's song to music, and such musical settings often have the title Magnificat because in the Latin translation of Luke's original Greek text, the first word of the song is Magnificat -- "My soul magnifies the Lord." The English translation is evocative as well.
And the hymn that we will sing after the sermon is inspired by Mary's Love Song.
But though Mary sang this song over 2,000 years ago, the world still has too many hungry people. And it also has too many rich and powerful people whom we would like to see thrown down off their thrones. So is there any point in singing such songs of joy, love and justice?
You may have noticed this summer and fall, that singing is really important to me. I love to sing, and the most important part of worship for me is often the hymns. I am pleased that singing is strong in all three points of Borderlands pastoral charge, and I have greatly enjoyed being a member in the Coronach and Rockglen community choirs this Fall. I will be sad after our final concert this afternoon at Grasslands Health Centre.
When I returned to attending church services regularly in 2001, singing in the choir was a key part of it. By joining the choir at my local church, Kingston Road United in east Toronto, I found a wonderful new group of friends. I found a place to sit each Sunday. I found a role in worship. And I found that worshipping each Sunday, and trying to express our faith in song, was starting to affect me quite deeply.
Perhaps the choir wasn't changing the world; but it was certainly helping to change me. And perhaps that was enough?
In worship in general, and in sacred songs in particular, we come together to remind ourselves of what we most value in life. This Advent, as always, we have used our Sunday services to remind ourselves of God's Grace under the headings of Hope in times of despair, of Peace in times of violence, of Joy in times of difficulties of all kinds, and of Love in the face of injustice.
When worship works to transform us as individuals and as a community, it can have many effects. It might mean that we work to feed people who are hungry and to comfort people who are feeling sad. It might mean that we protest unjust rulers as young Occupy activists do.
But even when worship doesn't have these clear or immediate effects in terms of actions, it can help restore our sense of priorities and our balance. When we come together to sing songs of God's love and God's justice, we both remind ourselves of the importance of beauty, and often create some of that beauty; we both remind ourselves that God's grace is always available to us and we sometimes experience an opening to that Grace in the moment; we both remind ourselves that God's reign will be one of equality and freedom for all; and we sometimes live out that equality in the sacred space and time of the worship service; and we both remind ourselves that our greatest desire and need in life is for love of God and neighbour and we often experience God's loving touch right here and now.
Worship doesn't just involve singing, of course. It also involves spoken prayer and times of sacred silence. It can also involve dance, meditation, drumming, sharing circles, and drama. And it often involves wordy sermons, in which we sometimes lose the thread that connects us to the Divine instead of grasping that thread more firmly!
But it usually involves at least some singing. And even for those of us who don't like to sing or don't feel confident about our voices, I imagine that the impulse to burst into song still sometimes happens. Singing involves the movement of the spirit in our bodies until it unites word with breath, bone and muscle to express ideas and emotions that are difficult to express in other ways.
And so when Mary accepted the difficult and amazing news of the Angel Gabriel, it makes sense to me that she sang a song. And it makes sense to me that it was not only a song of joy and of thanksgiving, but also a song that called for food for the hungry and for the rich to be thrown off their thrones.
But simply by singing her song, Mary didn't make God's reign appear right then and there. Nor did Luke, by writing it down many years later, make the world right just by that fact. Even the coming of Jesus, which Mary's song is about, didn't end all problems, or end all pain, or bring the reign of God to earth.
Or did it? In some ways, singing song's again like Mary's remind us both that we have a lot of work to do as individuals and as a church to make the world right; and that in that moment of singing, in that act of worship, in that reminder of what we value and want, the reign of God is right here -- Jesus is right here, in this moment, this breath, this sacred act of worship and remembrance. Another world is not only possible. Another world, God's world, the world we want -- it is right here, right now.
So this week, as Advent ends and Christmas comes again, and as we sing those familiar, wonder-filled and joy-filled carols, let us do so aware that we are joining with Mary in her song of love and justice.
On Christmas Eve and for the rest of the season, we will sing carols. In those carols and with God's help, we will remember again the hope that we feel even in dark times; the peace that we experience even in the face of conflict and violence; the joy that we feel even in the midst of life's ups and downs; and the love of God that we experience in this song, this breath, this moment, both now and always.
Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.