Dare To Imagine: Love Together

December 19, 2021
Luke 1:39-55

During advent we have been daring to imagine – as we wait for Christmas. This past week I was with folks from Faith in Action federations across the country who came to town to try and expand the imaginations of their senators. Talking about daring to imagine. Talk about waiting! They came from New Hampshire and New Mexico, California and Florida and at least 8 other states. These immigrant leaders, organizers and allies came to impress upon their legislators the importance of looking past the headlines and actually seeing immigrants and hearing their stories. They came to tell their senators to imagine beyond the lines that the parliamentarian draws, beyond the traditional understandings of what is possible.

Thursday night the parliamentarian released her assessment of the request to include a way for some immigrants, not nearly all, to be granted relief from criminalization and deportation. It was the third time an option was submitted to include immigrants and immigration in the Build Back Better Act. The parliamentarian said no, again. She said it is not possible. Within an hour, people from across the country got on Zoom, talked about their frustrations and began imagining what the next steps will be. It is one thing to imagine alone but when we imagine together – our hope, love and power can change the world.

Mary’s song is at once imaginative, and full of hope, love and power. It comes out of the mouth of a young pregnant woman but she doesn’t sing alone. She receives her song from her Jewish ancestors, Miriam and Hannah, who also envision and recognize the power of God at work in the world. Mary’s song is an abbreviated, though not identical, version of Hannah’s song. Older Hannah, who longed for a child, recalls her barrenness and wishes for seven children (I Samuel 2) Young Mary rejoices that she will be remembered for generations. Miriam’s song, sung after crossing the Red Sea, (Exodus 15) is actually more about the dance than the song. Nevertheless, Mary is firmly in the lineage of strong women who choose triumph over mourning, choose prophetic imagination over unending lament. Mary is part of the line of women who choose to sing.

And Mary doesn’t sing alone. She sings at Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house where she has gone to share the news of her surprising pregnancy. Since Mary’s elder cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant out of season, they offer support and blessing to each other and wonder together what this will mean for their lives. We might even imagine Mary and Elizabeth singing Mary’s song, the Magnificat, together.

If it wasn’t so familiar, we would imagine a young mother-to-be’s song would be a loving lullaby to welcome her baby. And the first part of Mary’s song does almost seem sweet as she rejoices in God’s greatness and proclaims God’s mercy. But like Miriam and Hannah before her, it turns into a foot-stomping, rock-the-world kind of song.

You have shown strength with your arm,
   You have scattered the proud in their conceit,
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones
   and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things
   while you have sent the rich away empty.

This revolutionary part of Mary’s song can be heard as a challenge and threat to those in power. Melissa Florer-Bixler notes that “During the British rule of India, the government decided that the content of the Magnificat was too politically overt, and it was outlawed from worship. In the 1980s Mary’s song was banned from public recitation by the Central American juntas. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – those whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War – placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza. As a result, that military outlawed public displays of Mary’s Song.” (How to have an Enemy, p. 89) 

Isn’t it something that men with guns and armies at their disposal are afraid of an ancient song sung by a teenage girl? But Mary’s song is powerful precisely because, unfortunately, it never grows old or irrelevant. Across the globe, in every time and in different styles, Mary’s song is sung, and it worries tyrants that they will be torn from their thrones. Now who is imagining?

It is not only Herod, tyrants, British colonial governments and despots in Latin America that feel threatened by Mary’s vision of justice. If we listen carefully we who have power and plenty of food, who are proud of the ways we have done better than our parents, we also might feel convicted. Well, I should speak only for myself. When I listen to Mary’s song with an open heart, I feel indicted.

And I get uncomfortable because the imagery feels so violent. I want to “pray for peace, act for peace.” I want peace and love to be the way. Couldn’t the mighty be deposed by… a democratic process? Couldn’t people who are hungry be fed without rich people being sent away with nothing?

Maybe it is time to use our imaginations again.

In this empire where we live we are taught that change and protection happen through violence and military might. But what if we use our imaginations. What if change doesn’t have to be violent? What if it can happen peacefully? Don’t we believe that it can? Isn’t that what Jesus came to teach us? Isn’t that what Anabaptists have been preaching for 500 years? Isn’t that the point of democracy? Change without violence?

It is complicated – of course. Change is often accompanied by conflict. After all Jesus did say, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” (A metaphorical sword, surely.) But, despite Jesus’ hyperbole, I want to imagine that conflict does not have to be violent. I am not arguing with Mary. I agree with her that change is needed — in us as individuals, and in our institutions and systems. Maybe it is self-serving since I am a person with some power, in a congregation with some power, in a country with a lot of power but I want non-violent change — individually and systemically. Because if we truly want to live into Mary’s song, those who have more power are going be affected. This past week I understood this in a new way.

I have been hanging out with Congregation Action Network, and the larger organization it associates with, Faith in Action, for over four years. It continues to challenge me. This past week it was clearer than ever that as an older white woman – in the presence of young, and older, immigrant leaders – my role is to be a witness, to observe and support. And maybe to speak, when invited, but rarely in a public setting.

This creates some internal dissonance for me. It has taken some years of effort and courage to feel comfortable stepping into public leadership roles. As a feminist, I carry the value of making sure that the voices of women are heard and taken seriously. But now, in this context, it is time to step back, to show my enthusiasm and support not by speaking but by listening. Am I watering down Mary’s song if I say that this is a peaceful way to, in Mary’s words, raise the lowly to high places and depose the mighty from their thrones.

If we want to live into Mary’s song with love, those of us who have power can make the choice to step back. We can use our power to move to the side and make room at the center for those who for too long have been relegated to the sidelines or even out of sight lines. Maybe when those of us with power step aside, it is not so much being deposed as it is choosing to cede space so others can step up.

Living into Mary’s song with love means we will commit ourselves to learning when it is time to step back and when it is time to step up. Context and company matter. Depending on where we are and who is there with us, our response and responsibility may be different. When I am with a bunch of white male pastors, it is probably time for me to step up, to use my voice to bring a perspective that might not otherwise be heard. But when I am with Faith in Action colleagues, many of whom are people of color, some of whom do not know English, or haven’t had many chances to exercise their voices or even imagine what it means to lead, then I must step back and find my role and power in being a witness. It is a different kind of power, a different kind of privilege.

You may remember me talking about Rosa Gutierrez Lopez who spent 18 months in sanctuary at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda. In December 2018 Rosa entered sanctuary – without her young children who were still living in Fredericksburg, VA. She knew little English, she was very new to being in front of tv cameras and giving interviews, and she was afraid to be separated from her children. Taking sanctuary  meant separation from her children only across state lines and not deportation to El Salvador.

Three years later Rosa is a leader in Congregation Action Network and regularly speaks out on behalf of herself and others who were in sanctuary. Last Tuesday Rosa even tried her hand at interpreting for a Faith in Action participant from New Mexico as they together spoke with a senator. As I watched Rosa lead a faith reflection on Wednesday, speaking out of her newfound power, I experienced the gift of stepping back; (use hands) I was brought low and Rosa was lifted up. I understood in a new way that there is plenty of room for both of us in Congregation Action Network, and in this country.

This invitation to join Mary’s song feels strange – to be called to bring our power into immigration advocacy with Congregation Action Network, only to step back and to the side. We hear the same call from Life After Release: “Come join our work, learn to be led – by women who were in the system.” It can feel disorienting to those of us who are used to being in charge. It takes time and patience but we can grow to trust a different kind of leadership. If we want to dismantle systemic injustices, peacefully, we must align ourselves with those who are pushed to the side. How else can we live into Mary’s song unless we look for the places where we can learn from modern day Marys? We must take our turn stepping back.

In the end, Mary’s song is a love song to her baby – and to the world. Mary imagines what the world might be for her baby, for her people, for all people. She invites us to join her song so that we can imagine and sing together.