[St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, VA; August 15, 2010; Luke 1:46-55.]
One of the benefits of being the parent of small children is that you get to read their books. This week, it was Stellaluna, which is the story of a fruit bat separated from her mother at birth and raised by birds instead. Normally, I don’t look to either picture books or fruit bats for theological insight, but I had today’s gospel fresh in my mind when my daughters and I came to the book’s climax.
Stellaluna has been trying hard to fit in with the birds. She comes to rest on a tree and hangs from her thumbs, determined to sleep upright as the mother bird has taught her. She wakes in the middle of the night to find another bat there in front of her, hanging properly bat-like from its feet. “Why are you hanging upside down?” the other bat asks. “I’m not upside down, you are!” Stellaluna protests. And then the other bat responds with the real zinger: “Ah, but you’re a bat.” Once she learns who she is, everything changes for little Stellaluna.
Why are you hanging upside down? Don’t you know who you are? And don’t you know which way the world is supposed to go?
Our gospel on this feast of Saint Mary asks us the same questions. Not in so many words, of course. Most folks who talk about Mary’s song talk in terms of revolution, as if Mary is trying to bring about something completely new and different. But they way I hear it, Mary is not talking about revolution as much as restoration. God’s kingdom is not going to turn things upside down. It’s going to finally set them right side up again. And if we are to be a part of that kingdom—well, we’d better remember where our true orientation is. In a world that can’t see straight, we’d better remember which end is really up.
This song that we hear from Mary comes from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, and from the very beginning of the story we hear about the all-too-familiar ordering of human power and priorities. Everything is set in the context of who’s supposed to be in charge, about King Herod and Emperor Augustus and all the rest. Throughout his gospel, Luke reminds us how the history books will record the events he’s talking about: they happened under this particular emperor, under that particular governor. When we’re reading Luke, we can never forget that the world Jesus came into is a world that gave authority to Caesar.
But pretty quickly on we also see something else: we meet this person who challenges those assumptions about who’s really in charge. By rights, she should be just a bit player, a walk on, because women weren’t important and certainly not young women and certainly not women who are pregnant without being married. This Mary person has no pedigree, no power, certainly no authority. Except—except that she is the first person in this story to get it. She is the first person to understand that the priorities of the world are all wrong. There she is, angel departed and Jesus not even born yet, but she knows what this baby is going to mean. She is the first one to name what a whole lot of other people will eventually figure out: that Caesar is not the real ruler of the world. God is.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud . . . he has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly.” When we start to look with Mary’s eyes, we start to see this world as God is seeing it. And a lot of our notions about what is precious and what is garbage get turned on their heads. A lot of the people and a lot of things, that history would write off as insignificant—well, they matter more than we ever imagined. And a lot of what we thought was so important—well, they seem silly at best.
We don’t live under Caesar any more, but we still live in an empire. And that empire invites us, every single day, to throw our fortunes in with these powers that look so mighty on the surface. Think about what things get you credibility in this world: Money. Power. Just about everything else boils down to some cocktail of those two. We’ll matter, we think, if we can get what we want. Of course, most of us are too self-aware to frame it so baldly. We don’t want to be rich; we just want to be secure. We don’t want to be masters of the universe; we just want to get by. But, still, insidiously, it’s so easy to wind up crafting our self-identity out of the things we have and the things we can get.
This subtle idolatry calls out in our culture. It’s there every time you open a newspaper, every time you turn on the TV, every time you click on to the Internet. And it beckons especially loudly here in the Washington area, where there’s a whole lot of wealth and power clustered in one place. Buy a big enough house, and you’ll be OK. Know the right people, and you’ll get by. Put up the right appearance, work the right hours, get into the right schools, win the right promotion, present the right image. It’s not so much that we are trying to be mighty or proud. But we wind up valuing might and power because they are the safest options that our culture presents to us.
Against this vicious cycle, Mary speaks. And she tells us of a different ways to see our world. Look again at your life, she asks. Is your head where it should be? Are the things to which we look up really the most important goals out there? Aren’t we missing something? Doesn’t God work differently than this?
We come here to church to hear what she has to say to us. Six days a week, we get bombarded by the messages of achievement, of dominance, of “success,” however vague and distorted that notion might be. But this one day, we come here to see things the way they should be. We get to envision ourselves the way we would like to be. We get a glimpse of this right-side-up world where the most important thing is not anything that we can do but rather the amazing mercy that God offers.
We come to hear these things from Mary. And, if we are doing our job rightly as a church, if we are living up to our name, we come to proclaim these things over and over, too. This parish, at its best, is a place where people will constantly hear what’s really important. They will hear that God is in charge of this world. They will hear that we humans are not. They will hear that love and mercy matter. They will hear that power and wealth do not.
Those things are really hard thing to say in North Arlington. They are not easy for people to articulate, and they are not easy for people hear. And so even we’re celebrating our patron saint and our parish identity today, I hope we will also consider how well we’re maintaining that identity. Will people come to this place and hear Mary’s message? When someone visits on a Sunday morning, reads our newsletter, checks out our website—will they hear this good news? If they don’t, how can we make it more clear?
Every time I walk into this building, I come down the steps from Glebe Road and walk past the wonderful statue that Peggy Parker created, the one that shows Mary holding on tight to the infant Jesus. I love that statue because it’s not Mary the pious or Mary the meek or any of the other clichés that tradition has given us. That statue instead shows a woman who knows what’s important: the baby in her arms, and all that he represents. Whatever else she’s going to do, she’s going to love and honor and be guided by the God who is incarnate with her.
That statue has become a kind of compass for me. Because when I am tempted to become someone who I’m not, when my attention wanders off towards images of myself that seem more impressive, I think of that Mary, not trying to be anyone other than herself. Because loving and being loved by God is all the identity that she needs. It’s all that any of us needs, really.
Perhaps that statue can be your compass, too, your guide as to which end is up in this upside down world. When you struggle to remember what really matters, think of Mary. Let her remind you of who God is. Let her remind you which way the world is supposed to go. We all need some straightening out from time to time. Thanks be to God, we have this witness who can keep us true, if we let her.