Text: Luke 2:1-19
Homily: The Radical Story of Christmas – Mary, Jazz and Turning the World Upside Down
It starts with being counted.
Whether or not they wanted to make the journey,
it didn’t matter. They had to go. In those final weeks of pregnancy, when the discomfort was everywhere and the eager anticipation bursting in every breath right then, these two young Jewish parents-to-be had to make the long and difficult journey. The Roman Emperor required it. He’d declared there was to be a registry, so they had to register.
Joseph and Mary were natives to this land – it was the land of their birth, their families –
but that wasn’t the point. As Jews under Roman rule, they were counted not because they were valued – at least not as people, but because they were sources of income. The registry was a way to make sure they were properly taxed. Their lives, their child’s life, ironically didn’t count for all that much.
This is where our story begins.
In our time, in our world today, hardly anyone knows the bible all too well, but the passage from Luke that I read is something most people have heard, and recognize. It’s a story that’s everywhere. Or at least, a version of it is everywhere – the old-standards children’s Christmas pageant story that can be told without risk or scandal – this story we know well.
But the fuller story – the story that starts with this couple that came to be counted,
but whose lives didn’t really count – this story still hasn’t been heard. And it’s this story that is worthy of our announcing joy to the world, glory to this universe,
go tell it on the mountain.
This story of Christmas is risky – the kind of risk that would put an image of Mary as a warrior trampling death in the image of a serpent with the words “cast down the mighty”
and “send the rich away” in your Christmas program.
I made sure that we printed the scriptural reference there below the artwork – as I was worried you might not realize that these radical sounding words can be found in the chapter right before this part of Luke that we more often read every year.
They are a part of a song that Mary belts out when she meets her sister Elizabeth and they celebrate their pregnancies – when Mary thinks about this new life she’s giving birth to,
she sings out about how God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, care for the hungry, and send the rich away.
See, Mary herself was one of the lowly, the hungry, the powerless. Yet through her, love would be born anew, and through her all people would be brought into the transforming, healing, relentless power of this love. As Universalists we do mean to say all when we talk about the power of this love, as we affirm that there is nothing anyone could do that would alienate them from the presence and pull of this healing, transforming love.
Through this young woman who was required to be counted but whose life didn’t really count, the whole world would change.
All of this has to be in our minds when we hear this story of these young unmarried parents to be, and this story of their child’s birth. So that, for example – at the end of the scripture when it says “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart,”
you might get the sense that this is a sweet contemplation – the way that mothers often ponder their children and how lovely they are – how many people adore them – but when you put this line in context with the preceding fierce proclamation – “from this day all generations will call me blessed” and “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”
suddenly you can hear how she was pondering these things in her heart not in such a quaint, saccharine sort of way, but in a powerful, prophetic imaginative contemplation, as she, and we begin to realize just how much the world is being turned upside down.
It is ironic that so many of us believe we know this story, that its telling has become almost boring – because it is a story that is supposed to turn our world upside down, shock us with a total reversal, offering a vision of a world that is perpetually and powerfully subversive. The lowly become the powerful, the outcast becomes king, and the social rejects – which is what shepherds were considered at the time – the bottom of the social ladder, rejected as liars and thieves….these are the types of people chosen to first receive this good news…by way of God’s messengers singing in the sky, meeting them right where they were, inviting them to become themselves messengers, hope-bringers, bearers of great joy.
Later we are told, that all of these lowly outcasts drew the attention of the truly wise and wealthy by way of the magi who willingly traveled far just to kneel at the feet of a family
that according to the world powers, didn’t count at all.
Cast down the mighty, lift the lowly, turn everything upside down.
It’s this combination of encountering in the most familiar story of Christmas the most surprising and subversive story that had me thinking about jazz as we started our Christmas service planning. Because jazz has all the same components as every regular, traditional sort of music – and yet it takes all of this and has the potential to go in a whole different direction- depending on the musicians, and the ways they come together,
their openness to respond to the moment, their willingness to be vulnerable, to make mistakes and to be present for one another, and to the creative forces moving through and among them.
Like the Christmas story, jazz repeats itself – and yet each time it does so with revision –
retelling through a rewrite – it is an expression of both memory and hope, tradition and transformation. Since its inception and throughout its history, jazz has been, a site for subversive collaboration – bringing together white and black musicians and listeners in ways that upended long-standing traditions of racial segregation in music. And along the way created music that had never yet been imagined or heard, something profoundly unexpected, and even upside down.
I’ve heard about Christmas Eve jazz services for a while, but in asking around I struggled to find a Unitarian Universalist example – we tend to do the traditional, the reflective, and the contemplative – less so the improvisational and energetic. But this year I kept thinking about how relevant the surprising upside down parts of this story is for our world today – in this time when the extremely-wealthy have a seemingly unstoppable grip on power and influence, when violence grows and division reigns, when yet again we are talking about who counts, and who matters, where we turn away from the immigrant, the refugee, the young and vulnerable seeking shelter, turn away from our neighbors, our family, ourselves…..
Maybe in other years we might not realize just what good news this story is, and so it could remain for us safe, traditional, distant and theoretical. But this year, this story – in all of its powerful unexpected, risky reversal is for us. This year we need the good news that something new is happening, here among us, even in the most invisible and unglamorous parts of our lives, those parts that society might reject, those places where we feel most outcast that even here a new and transforming love is struggling to be born – and we are the ones who can prepare it room.
Our lives – like the rooms of Bethlehem are often overly full. Filled up with cynicism and debt; busy-ness and bitterness –with all sorts of things that only we know about, that keep our hearts closed off and that get in the way of the love that would heal us, and connect us, upend and transform us and make whole the whole world round.
But this year we need to make the room, prepare the space because we need this Christmas story – in all of its radical vision, we need to clear the way in our lives, in our hearts for a love this powerful, this transformational – to release ourselves from those things that keep us busy yet unsatisfied – getting by, yet still longing for more –
isolated out in the fields believing all hope is lost – Christmas asks us to be this brave –
that we might hear the call breaking through the cold dark night: whispering, be not afraid.
That we might respond to the call of love arriving in all those places that the world says doesn’t count. In the face and lives of the most vulnerable. In the places of our lives
we believe are unseen and unheard, in those people who have been cast out, there the holy calls us to risk making the way, risk stepping out into the night, to gather with others,
imagining a whole new world, to say it is possible, to proclaim the good news of its birth.
There is much in the world and in life today that would have us despair, feeling powerlessness. But this two thousand year old familiar story still comes, and challenges us to be radically surprised – to imagine an entirely different world, to see in the darkest coldest night a bright bold light still arriving, to play not the standard melody but to risk a new note and a syncopated rhythm, a brave new story possible when people leave their familiar fields and set out on behalf of strangers and outcasts, on behalf of a love big enough to save the whole world.
This is the promise of Christmas worthy of being shouted from the mountain top
Don’t give up, love is just getting started.
Let us prepare it room – joining our voices in a great and glorious: alleluia!
Amen, and blessed be.