Our scripture reading today drops us into the middle of an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women: There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary. As Luke tells it, God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.
Our reading begins in the middle of the conversation. Elizabeth, touched by the Holy Spirit, has already cried out in delight, offering words of praise: "Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of thy womb!"
Mary responds in the form of a song, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." You may recognize this as the opening words of the Magnificat, Mary's song of praise. Her beautiful words are surprising yet familiar, for though her pregnancy is without precedent, her words place her in a long tradition.
As Mary sings the Magnificat, we hear echoes of the songs of other faithful women, like Miriam and Deborah and Hannah. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible notes that this is a sign of how "deeply imbedded is Mary's story in the traditions of her people." (The Living Pulpit, vol. 10, No. 4, October-December 2001, page. 8).
Mary goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things God has done. He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
It's a beautiful passage from scripture, but what catches my attention is the tense: Mary is singing in the present tense. She's not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done.
The prophetic tradition is mostly concerned with the future, what God will do and what shall happen. Consider the words of Isaiah, chapter 35: "The wilderness and the dry land SHALL be glad, the desert SHALL rejoice and blossom." Or turn to the Revelation of John, chapter 21: "He WILL wipe every tear from their eyes. Death WILL be no more." (21:4a)
But not Mary: Mary is singing in the present tense. Actually, if you know your English grammar, she's singing in the present perfect.
Why would Mary sing about the present? Her song and its vision of a just and peaceful world seem to have no basis in reality. Consider the facts: She was an insignificant girl from a family of no repute. She lived in a dusty village carved out of the hills in Galilee. She was PWP--pregnant without permission--and because of that, her future was, at best, uncertain. More than that, her people were oppressed, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Anyone hearing her song could see for themselves: The proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful sat comfortably upon their thrones, some might say much as they do today. It makes no sense: Mary's song is disconnected from reality.
Or is it?
In 1955, British philosopher J.L. Austin published a book entitled How to Do Things With Words. In this volume, he laid out his theory that words do not just assert things, but can actually do things. Austin used the example of a wedding ceremony in which a person says, "I do," and the words generate a new reality. He called such words "performative utterances." To say it is to do it. Austin concluded that some words had generative power.
Anyone who has done strategic planning knows that this is true. Recently, I was part of a strategic planning process for a local non-profit. We wanted to chart a new course for the future of the organization, and we hired a facilitator to guide us through the process of strategic planning. Our main task was to create a vision statement--not to be mistaken for a mission statement. The vision statement needed to be clear and compelling and could include two or three long-term goals that were almost out of reach. Most importantly, our facilitator said, the vision statement needs to be written in the present tense.
I asked what she meant by that. "Don't tell me what you will be, tell me what you are." To me, it seemed disingenuous to write a vision statement in the present tense. After all, if we had actually accomplished our goals, we wouldn't need a vision statement. Why would we express our hopes in the present tense? It turns out there is conclusive research that proves organizations that express their goals in the present tense are more likely to achieve those goals. The right vision statement can create a sense of unity, purpose and excitement in an organization.
What works in organizations also works for individuals. Since the 1960s, Olympic athletes have been using visualization and imagery as part of the training regime. One sports psychologist said, "The more completely an athlete can imagine competing successfully, the better the outcome." Visualization helps people anticipate and overcome obstacles, as well as lessen distractions. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that training the mind is more important to athletic performance than training the body. As the saying goes, "If you can conceive it, you can believe it, and you can achieve it."
Visualization techniques and vision statements inspire because they paint a vivid picture of a hoped-for reality. Not only can you see the future, you can practically live in it--and if you can live IN it, you can live INTO it. For that is the real power of a compelling vision: it can instruct.
By establishing a new reality, one that diverges from, or even competes with, the present reality, a clear vision enables us to discern what actions, what ideas and what attitudes are in line with that reality and bring us closer to achieving our goals.
That's why there is power in the present perfect tense.
We see this most vividly in the clear and compelling mission statement Black Lives Matter. Like Mary's Magnificat, this slogan describes a reality for which there is little evidence. Whether you consider the gap in student achievement, the disparity of family income, the lack of access to healthcare, or the tragic outcomes of police encounters, it seems clear that in the United States, Black Lives Don't Matter. But that is not the way it should be. That is not the way it will be, thus sayeth the Lord.
Think of this slogan NOT as a protest, but as a vision statement like the Magnificat, a hoped-for reality. Black lives matter, so we have to address the chronic, crippling poverty that is the unwelcomed inheritance from centuries of oppression. Black lives matter, so we must raise our expectations for those who have the authority to use deadly force. Black lives matter, so even the smallest vestige of implicit racism must be addressed.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not asking a question or hoping for a better day: They are charting a new course into the future for this country, a future where the color of one's skin does not determine one's prospects for prosperity and happiness.
Some people may find this vision statement controversial or even threatening, just as some people surely took offense at the Magnificat. Let's face it: It's not really good news for the rich, the proud or the powerful.
But the Magnificat is a clear and compelling vision of God's intentions for all creation. It offers inspiration and instruction so that anyone--high born or low brow--can participate in this magnificent future. We may not see evidence yet of Mary's vision of the world, but these words she's singing have the power to generate a new reality.
All we need is for enough people to join in the singing. Let us sing the Magnificat together. Let us believe that the world will be made whole. If we can believe it, we can achieve it, for this is the present perfected. Amen.