A sermon preached by Naomi Schulz
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Text: Luke 1:46-55: Mary’s Song of Praise – The Magnificat
Opening Prayer: Loving God, as a Hasidic Rabbi once said: “By reading sacred scripture we put your words on our hearts, but only you can put them inside our hearts. When our hearts break, oh Lord, may your holy words fall inside.” Amen.
In Judaism the written words and letters of scripture are called black fire. The written words of black fire are what get passed down unchanged from generation to generation. But the blank spaces between the letters and words is called white fire. White fire is all the stuff that could be in the story, but isn’t. The black fire of Mary’s magnificat sings praise to God who lifts up those who are vulnerable. With black fire she gives thanks for carrying a babe who will become God’s outpouring of love into the world. The black fire speaks to the fulfillment of God’s promises.
In Mary’s Magnificat, God is at work in a deeply personal way that also changes the world. It tells us that we see evidence of God at work in the world when the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are fed. But what about the white fire? I wonder about all that is left unsaid in the story. Mary sang this song of praise during a visit with her cousin Elizabeth. But, I wonder how uncertain Mary felt about her future when she left Nazareth to visit her cousin? I wonder if it was fear that prompted her visit. Perhaps she wanted someone with more experience to help her figure out what to do next. Recognizing God at work in our lives is neither easy, nor comfortable, nor always reassuring – but the black fire of today’s scripture doesn’t mention that part.
When God is working in our lives what does that look like? What does it feel like? Would we recognize it if happened to us? For Barrie Hathaway, the Executive Director of the Stride Center in Oakland, these are not idle questions. He founds his livelihood on answering them. The goal of the Stride Center is to lift people out of poverty through offering free training in cutting edge Information, Communication and Technology skills. A couple weeks ago Barrie told me that students who spend six months getting one technical certification at the Stride Center have a 61% chance of getting an entry level job. That job typically pays 16 to 20 dollars per hour – an income that doubles what many of their trainees are accustomed to earning. Study for three more months to get another credential and you have a 76% chance of finding a job. Add a little work experience and suddenly you have a 90% chance. These numbers make the Stride Center one of the most effective job training programs in the U.S., and It offers folks with histories of incarceration, generational poverty, addiction, or mental or physical disability a real and lasting opportunity for upward mobility.
Looking in from the outside, this looks like God working in a deeply personal way to change in the world. It describes the kind of reversal Mary points to as evidence of God’s presence – a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. For those who succeed, there is indeed enormous potential for blossoming here. But that’s not all there is to this story. The black fire of Barrie’s percentages doesn’t paint the whole story.
Barrie also shared that the Center loses 10% of their students off-the-top because they are too afraid to leave their underpaying jobs – no matter how much training they complete. These folks have been beaten down so repeatedly, Barrie said, that letting go of their poverty wages feels like too big a risk to take. God may make a highway out of the desert, like Isaiah says, but experience teaches us that sometimes folks are too tired, or too scared, to follow it. For Barrie, the ethical invitation here is find ways to breach the gap. He reaches out with all the resources his institution has to offer, he works to bolster and build highways between the support systems of the folks he trains.
Despite years of effort and trial and error, he hasn’t yet found a solution to overcoming the many inhibitions that get in the way of launching the lost 10%. For me, this loss suggests a much wider societal problem – that of an insufficient safety net for protecting the vulnerable among us, and harmful structural inequalities that leave people behind at an early age. Faced with the vulnerability of our individual lives, and structural inequalities that serve to exacerbate such vulnerability rather than overcome it, I cannot help but wonder – as Barrie does – what more could be done to ensure that all of us have the opportunity and the courage to flourish.
At this time of year, our own hurts, fears, sorrows and dysfunctions are often thrown into stark relief with the cheery expectations of the Christmas season. Some of us are too sick to celebrate, some are too sad, and some of us are just plain tired. Its hard to know what to even do with these difficult feelings. It’s hard to know where to put them. Do we slip into isolation where we can keep them to ourselves? Do we throw ourselves into a flurry of activity to keep them from surfacing? No matter how hard we try to hide them, they likely break out in some form or another, often in the least helpful way at the least helpful time. So where do we find the opportunity and courage to flourish even with these difficulties?
In today’s scripture, newly pregnant Mary walked 80 miles from Nazareth in Galilee to a small hill town in Judea to visit her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Mary renewed a connection that offered mutual understanding and support. In uneasy and unexpected circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth encouraged each other, and in doing so they created a Holy Highway for intimacy and rejoicing. They held open a space for each other to flourish in their wildernesses, and we can do the same with and for each other.
Someone asked me a question last week that I’ve never been asked before. It was during an interview for chaplaincy training. After asking me to share what I might do in a hypothetical scenario common in hospital settings, the director of the training program asked me: “What is the positive side of anxiety?” Being deeply familiar with anxiety, I had a ready answer. “It’s highly motivating”, I told him. “What else?”, he asked. I was totally stumped. After an extended pause he asked again: “What good is the I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know running through your head?” I looked at him blankly and told him I gave up. He replied that everyone else in that hospital room probably has exactly the same uncertainty running through their heads, so anything I could I do to put a little container around it would be helpful. “You can offer a glass of water,” he said. Relief poured through me. Ah heck, I thought, I can do that. I’ve done it before. We all have. But something even that simple can be hard to remember in times of stress.
What I like most about this story, and about the Magnificat that arises from Mary’s conversation with Elizabeth, is that they remind us that sometimes our souls most magnify the Lord when we offer each other the equivalent of a glass of water. We are all vulnerable beings and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable together, to let the sorrow and hurt show along with the joy, perhaps we can find a way forward through the wilderness of our lives, the wilderness of of the holiday season, and the wilderness of church renewal.
Barrie, the Director of the Stride Center, is facing the problem of how to help some of America’s most hurt people to relearn just enough vulnerability to accept a well-paying job. A job that they are fully capable of excelling in. Here at First Baptist Church we discern how we can and will be present to ourselves, and to each other, during this often stressful season. May we emerge from that process as a mess of blooming crocuses in the desert.