This Advent has been hell on earth; it has. If ever there was a hunger for hope, if ever hearts and ears inclined heavenward, if ever there was a moment to minister help from on high, Church, it is now. These days are dire. The desperation is real. It is as if our neighbors are caught in a quicksand of suspicion, fear, and disillusion. Only, for all they strain to free themselves, the further they seem to sink. I want us to break through the despair by bringing a good word, by bearing glad tidings that would console, that would bind up, that would strengthen, that would embolden, and that would inspire. But Church, progressive Christian friends, we are in a pickle; we have a big problem. We have a big problem that is best summed up in the expression – It is not what you say, it is how you say it.
I am afraid that the way some progressive Christians talk, well, can seem strident and smug. (And, know that I am preaching to myself as I am the chief of sinners…) I am afraid that if a person with whom we disagreed came to some of us, came in earnestness to discuss how to move the dial on torture, on immigration, on income inequality, on climate change, on war, on race – I am afraid that we would be incapable of conversation and able only condescend and lecture. I am afraid because, though I hear our kind opining and pontificating and parroting the pundits on MSNBC and the Huffington Post, what I do not hear from us, what I do not hear from progressive Christians is much by way of real interest in and empathy for other points of view. I am afraid that our appreciation of difference encompasses those who look differently and those who love differently but does not extend to those who vote differently. I am afraid that some of us have forgotten the old advice that we scrutinize our own politics through the lens of the gospel before we level it as a weapon against that other party. I am afraid that some of us who think we are a part of the solution are actually a part of the problem.
I think some of us progressive Christians need to stop, to take a step back and catch our breaths. Some progressive Christians need to sit out a few rounds to reflect, and not tweet about, blog about, link on Facebook to other people’s blogs about, make small-talk about, or turn on the cable news station sure to reflect your own bias back to you to hear commentary about, Palestine or the Keystone Pipeline or whatever. And I say this not because I want any of us to stop the work we are doing for justice, but because I am desperate that the work we are doing for justice actually work. By and large, it is not working. Look around! It is not working. On a host of fronts, we are losing ground and not gaining it. We have been, some of us, talking and talking. Talking until we are blue in the face, and I have got to ask: How is that going for you? We will say something like, The planet is warming and catastrophe is coming. And no one cares to listen. So, as if the issue is that they just did not hear us, we will say it again. We will say it louder. Still, no one cares to listen. We will go on saying the same things we have always said, the way we have always said them. We will be expecting that suddenly the world will lend an ear, but this is not proving itself to be a winning strategy. This cannot feel good.
After enough of this, the passion some of us felt to change the world for God and for good – I fear – it has shrunk down and has hardened into rage, rage that the world is not changing, and the rage has shrunk down and has hardened further still, and it has become resentment, resentment toward all those who do not see the need for change as we see it. Rage and resentment hold no power for progressive Christians. These are poison. These can only turn us into partisans and soldiers, turn our churches into echo-chambers of self-righteousness – and turn off the very ones we want to win to the cause. The ones we want to win to the cause can smell the resentment on us. And they will not get behind us if they do not trust us, and they will not trust us if they are always and only defending themselves against us. People will not rally around us to change the world so long as it is clear we think that they are what is wrong with the world.
However, Church, I believe there is a better way. Mary’s way. Hear her sing. Hear Mary sing. Mary sings out. She is not complaining about politics. She is not Eeyore-ing about the end of civilization as we know it. She is not forwarding links from ThinkProgress or MoveOn.org to likeminded friends, links meant only to irritate and insult. Mary is not puffed up and putting others down. Mary sings of her own fallibility, her own smallness of insight, and her own limitations of vantage. Mary sings, God has looked with favor upon my lowliness. Mary sings of a movement anchored in modesty. Mary marches on, not because she is sure that she is right and they are wrong, but because God will use anyone and everyone! The only thing Mary is confident of is that God is advancing the gospel and that, by grace, she no less than anybody can play a part in it. Mary does not seem to think she is God’s policy wonk; Mary’s call to social justice is born not from her own certainty about how to orchestrate peace on earth – no, Mary’s call to social justice is born from the glad surprise that for all her ignorance and finitude, even she, even she can support God’s work in the world. Thanks be to God!
Hear her sing. Hear Mary sing. Mary sings out, and her deepest yearnings are ours – that God bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. Overturning the old order of inequity – it is what we are looking for, it is what we are longing for! This is all the language of protest, but, but it comes to us within the music of praise. Mary’s aria for revolution is actually a hymn of adoration and abandonment. Mary sings. Mary sings out – My soul magnifies the Lord! And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! The Mighty One has done great things! Great is God’s mercy, from generation to generation! My spirit rejoices! My spirit rejoices! Mary roots justice – not in rage or resentment; Mary roots justice in joy. Mary’s picketing the powers-that-be springs from praise. The changing world Mary wishes for erupts from worship. Mary grounds struggle in spirituality, for she knows that to withstand setbacks and defeats we need something stronger than anger. Oh, we will need anger, but we will need something stronger than anger because anger burns hot and anger burns out. Mary knows that we need God to set fire to our hearts, fire that does not die down. Mary knows that what sustains us in revolt is our relationship with God. Mary knows that for the long haul, we need hallelujahs.
Church, I want us to sing with her. I want us to sing Mary’s song. I want us to sing Mary’s song – a song as gentle as it is barbed. A song that is both threat and lullaby. A song that is soothing and, in that, powerful. A song whose force is its tenderness. I want us to sing a song like this. A song that can penetrate the thick skulls. A song that has a prayer of catching on! I want us to woo others with songs of justice that spring from joy, songs of the beauty of the better world God is bringing, songs that ring of gladness. I want us to sing a song that will stick in someone’s head and stick in their heart, a matchless melody higher and holier than any music heard before. I want the songs we sing to be inspired, to be so tuneful and true, so mighty and moving, so glorious and good and game-changing that they would find resonance in every soul, in every soul. Every spirit would prepare them room, for we are sounding not small, petty, political chatter but the very ballads sung on the streets in the Kingdom of God.
Church, I want us to sing Mary’s song. I want us to sing a song of defiance that springs up from sheerest delight. I want us to wander Boston’s alleys, singing, and singing: It is winter, friend. It is winter and it is freezing and the shelters are full, but I have a spare room. I have a sofa. I have a sleeping bag and a garage. I want us to make our way to Mattapan and to Roxbury, singing, singing: Sisters, brothers, indeed, let’s send the police a message, let’s send them a message they shall never forget. Let’s march together, let’s march on the Boston Police Headquarters… white children and black children… carrying plates of cookies, carrying Christmas cards that read ‘Peace on earth, and goodwill to all – from our families to yours.’ I want us to sing Mary’s song, a song that sounds like laughter in the face of adversity, a song that sounds like weeping for joy, a song of such gobsmacking, game-changing goodness that it can only have come from God.