12/23/18: Can Love Do That? Luke 1:46-55
Can Love Do That?
First Lesson: Psalm 80:1-7
Second Lesson: Luke 1:46-55
Rev. Scott Dickison
Can love do that?
This is the question I just can’t seem to escape in the Christmas story this year.
Can love do all of this?
Can love squeeze the God of the universe into a mother’s womb, into a little baby?
And not just any mother, but this particular mother. With the gloss of scripture we know her as the Virgin Mary, but to the neighbors down the street, wouldn’t she have been the unwed teenage girl suddenly found to be expecting? You can imagine the whispers, the gossip. No wonder they decided to leave town—that census must have been a welcome excuse.
Is this how love works in the world?
And it doesn’t get any easier to swallow once they get there: the Son of God born under the cloak of night, surrounded by farm animals, greeted into the world by migrant workers fresh off third shift in some backwater town—the anonymity, the poverty, the scandal of it all—we question the virgin birth, but think of all the rest of it. Can love do that?
And even if we could wrap our minds around the full story of the nativity scene—the parts of it that don’t fit under the plexiglass cover we put over this one when it sits in the library the rest of the year—there’s this song Mary sings in her cousin’s living room upon hearing they’re both unexpectedly expecting, that begins sweet enough:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness 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.
A song giving voice to that mysterious sense any expectant mother might feel that something beyond her is happening inside her. But as she continues it becomes clear Mary is aware of just how far beyond her this story extends.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts 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 helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And suddenly what we thought was a sweet story of the birth of a baby is revealed to in fact be a story of the rebirth of a people; of all creation. A story of all that’s crooked being made straight, of rough things being made smooth, valleys being filled and mountains being lowered—as John the Baptizer would put in just a few chapters’ time and as Isaiah imagined generations before.
Of God’s kingdom come and will being done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus would say. Of tears being wiped away and death being no more. Mourning and crying and pain all gone. “Of all things made new.”
And it turns out this was not a new song that Mary is singing, but in fact a new setting to an old, old tune. A tune that first appeared generations before on the lips of another unlikely mother, Hannah, at the miraculous birth of her son Samuel, which too seemed to signal something much bigger:
“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God…
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
This story we tell, for all its newness, is rooted in a very old story of what God has been up to since the beginning, but the question whispered against scriptures shout has always been and continues to be,can love do that?
Is love strong enough to rebirth creation?
Is love strong enough to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, or bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly?
Is love strong enough to give food to the hungry and send away those who have had their fill?
To right the wrongs of this world—to open hearts, to warm spirits, to break us free from the rigid, fearful ways we see and talk about each other—to melt the suspicion?
Is love strong enough to turn off cable news?!
Is love strong enough to unclinch our fists and un-tighten our chests?
Can love do all of this? This is the question of Christmas, but beyond that, it’s the question of our faith: Can love really do that?
Sometime during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, as he sat in a Montgomery jail cell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a sermon on the section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew where he instructs his followers to love their enemies. King admits there’s probably no other commandment of Jesus more challenging than this one, and that many would say, and still do, that to follow it in the literal sense is at worst foolish or cowardly, and at best impractical. You can imagine the intensity in which he himself heard these arguments from his parishioners and so many others he was trying to lead in the way of nonviolence—not just then in Montgomery, but throughout the Civil Rights movement. Arguments he probably felt himself as they endured the wrath of white anger and even violence. Arguments that were not unfounded—King’s house would be bombed and, of course, years later, he himself would be killed. This was not an abstract question of whether or not to follow Jesus’ command to love, and yet Dr. King writes there in the middle of that struggle,
My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities that surrendered to hatred and violence…
“Love” he writes,“is the most durable power in the world.” The most durable. The durabilityof love. It’s the only thing strong enough to turn an enemy into a friend,” he wrote. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said in the same sermon, “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
But we ask, again, this Christmas, so many years later: canlove do that?
It’s a question we ask by candlelight each December 21 in this room during our Service for the Longest Night. When we remember that for the last several months as the days have grown shorter, less and less light has come into the world, leaving more and more darkness. A truth of the natural world that so many of us feel in our own lives, in this season or any season. But the truth under which we gather—the hope, the testimony—is that after that night, as the axis of the earth turns more toward the sun, more and more light will come, and we pray that the same might be true for us.
So we light candles and we sit in silence and watch the flickering shadows they cast. Each of us holding our losses in our empty hands, and yet holding them together. We hold them sensing the presence of others, sensing the pain of others, and finding in the depth of our own sorrow strength enough feel and hold the sorrows of others. And the question we never speak but is behind everything we do that night is Can love do this?
Can love see us through the grief, can love walk us through the darkness?
Not even the darkness of death, but also the darkness of life?
Father Michael Renninger of St. Mary’s Church in Richmond tells a story about his grandparents from when he was a teenage boy.
They lived for years in a row house in Philadelphia, where his grandfather would sit in his reclining chair in front of the television, teaching his grandkids a whole new vocabulary while watching the Phillies disappoint him once again.
He remembered his grandmother as an active woman, constantly going and coming through the swinging front porch door—here and there, between card games and bingo and local church meetings.
But all of this changed abruptly and unforgivingly in 1982 when Renninger’s grandfather had a series of strokes that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. He could no longer walk. He couldn’t speak. And he couldn’t swallow. Doctors finally inserted a feeding tube and they encouraged the couple to find a nursing facility where he could be cared for. But his wife was having none of that, and announced she would be taking her husband home to the row house to care for him there. And that’s what she did.
The comfortable recliner went out of the living room and was replaced by a hospital bed. The television was still there. His grandfather could no longer yell, but he would gesture to the Phillies with his right hand.
His grandmother, meanwhile, had to learn a whole new set of skills and pattern of life. The door didn’t swing so much any more. Rather than here and there, she was almost always there, by his side, becoming the caregiver for her husband, sitting near him, learning how to feed him through a tube.
This little row house wasn’t far from where Renninger went to college. So one Friday afternoon he decided to stop to see them. He parked the car on the street, walked across the front porch, pulled the squeaky screen door and as he did, he immediately sensed something is wrong but didn’t know what. Until his eyes adjusted and he saw —his grandfather was in the bed, his face red, gesturing with his right hand, grandmother standing over him and frantically trying to move things around. Something had gone wrong with the feeding tube and the liquid was everywhere. He was flustered. She was crying.
Renninger had the instinct that I would have had at age 19 in a moment like that and might still today which was to get out of that room as quickly possible. He put his hand on the door, started to push it open, and with the squeak his grandmother looked up, noticing him for the first time. She was a gentle woman, one who had never raised her voice to her grandson before, but in that moment she shouted at him, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare leave. Because sometimes love looks like this.”
Can love do that? we ask.
Can love keep us there at the bedside?
Can it get us to the diagnoses and get us through the treatments?
Can it sit with us through the pain and wipe away the tears?
Can it put food in swollen bellies and reveal the wealth of poverty and the poverty of wealth?
Can it mend the wounds of this weary world—can it mend our wounds of weariness?
Can it bear that baby into the world to that mother and father surrounded by those animals and those tired working men on that dark but angel-filled night?
The promise of this story we tell this season—the beating heart of which and will gather around tomorrow night—and the wider story we will tell together throughout this year and that you will live in so many ways throughout your life though you may not be aware of it at the time, and will witness others live as well, is yes.
Yes it can.
Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” from Strength to Love.
Fr. Michael Renninger, “Sometimes Love Looks Like This,” found on A Sermon for Every Sunday, January 31, 2016.