I love listening to singer/songwriters. As a trained vocalist, I was groomed in undergraduate studies learning about the musical greats in jazz and classical music. I have been nurtured by giants like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. My soul is filled when I listen to living jazz legends like Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, and Robert Glasper just to name a few. By studying the greats, I have learned the art of interpreting lyrics through musical phrasing and painting pictures with sound.
But one category of modern music truly speaks to my soul. It is the category of the singer/songwriter. These artists not only make music, but they tell a story. Their stories change lives, their stories save lives, their stories leave an imprint upon us. Their stories transform the world.
I can remember going to my first singer/songwriter workshop with my musical shero, Jonatha Brooke back in 2016. Her wit, her wisdom, her humor, her insight, and creatively comes through with every note, guitar tuning, phrasing, and vocal articulation. For the small group of us who attended, we could all remember how her songs made us feel. We could all point to a time when her songs gave us permission to feel or to hope, to create, and to sing songs of our own. And she led by example, teaching us how to paint a picture, how to tell a story and transform the world with our music.
The Magnificat. It leaves an impression upon us every time we hear it. For me, Mary is the quintessential singer/songwriter. This song of hers, it springs forth from her soul.
This song does not happen in isolation but in the perfect setting. Mary is the theotokos, the Godbearer, and she's in the company of another deep woman of faith brimming forth with life in her womb, her cousin Elizabeth.
I imagine the two of them together, giddy, excited, nervous, and perhaps still living with a hint of disbelief. Elizabeth begins and breaks out with the spirit-inspired words that are fitting for any new song. She calls Mary blessed. She declares the fruit of Mary's womb blessed. She recognizes Mary's faith in God's promises as a blessing, too. It is on the heels of this spiritual declaration and affirmation from her cousin Elizabeth, who is a living miracle in her own right as a pregnant woman a little past her child-bearing years. It is right after this affirmation that Mary breaks forth in a song like a seasoned singer/songwriter. Her song is authentic, raw, beautiful, and truthful. It speaks about the plight of the lowly and the power of God's promises. Her song is interpolated with the words of the prophets and holds in it God's legacy of love and faithfulness and justice. Commentators speak of her song as a song of reversals.
You see, Mary is no stranger to the marginalized life. She does not come from means. She does not hold any position of power. She probably knows what it is like to be overlooked, passed over, underrepresented, and silenced by the culture around her. A poor Jewish girl in a community under the rule of the Roman Empire, she knows how she is perceived and seen by the dominant culture.
But she also knows what it's like to be seen by God Almighty who sits high but looks low (that's what the old church mothers used to say). Mary sings what she has seen and proclaims what her heart now knows. She is a demonstration of God's ability to breathe life and purpose and meaning into a person's existence even when the world thinks you aren't worthy or significant.
It is Mary's song that shines light on the nature and character of God. She sings in gratitude for God's love for her and for all. She sings praise and adoration for the God who is the same God who has looked upon her with favor as she is surrounded by a culture that deems her less than favorable.
In a moment when she would have had every right to sing a broken hallelujah for the complexity of her position and unprecedented situation...
She sings a Holy Hallelujah for God's mercy from generation to generation.
She sings a Holy Hallelujah for God's strong arm, and that strong arm scatters the proud and brings down the powerful and sends away the rich.
She sings a Holy Hallelujah to the one true God who lifts up the lowly, fills up the hungry with good things, and whose mercy is from generation to generation.
Mary sings a song of love for the loveless. She sings a song of hope for the hopeless. She sings a song of joy for ages to come, and she sings this song over us.
Mary's song is an unprecedented song for an unprecedented time. As Christians in the face of a pandemic that is not letting up any time soon, we know what it is like to live in unprecedented times. We are surrounded by pain. We see oppression. We see the high and the proud impact the lowly and the marginalized. We see the gaps between the haves and the have nots. Gaps in terms of access to healthcare. Gaps as it relates to digital support for education. We see the pain of racial violence and discrimination. All of this pain around us is good cause and good justification to sing the blues.
And yet, it is in this season of Advent that we remember Christ is coming, and Christ has the power to change your tune. Christ is coming, and Christ has the power to turn ordinary servants into composers ready to create songs of hope and justice. Ready to create songs that speak of a promise and a future. Ready to create songs that point to God's mercy, no matter who is in power and no matter who is in control.
Now is the time to see Mary in the right light. She is a worship warrior with songs that can cause the powerful and the haughty to shudder. Mary's song - it's a reflection of her resounding 'yes' to God's call on her life. And her song is a reflection of God's limitless love for us all. We need to see Mary the way God sees her – favored, powerful, a servant leader - an inspiration for us all.
Friends, we need inspiration in this season. We have never had an Advent season like this one. This is an unprecedented Advent. We have never waited like this before. We have never had to slow down like this. We have never had to stop and listen to the world around us in this particular way. We have never had to sit in the silence and hear God like this.
It is in the face of these unprecedented times and during this unprecedented Advent that we have a chance to sing new songs. Songs that break the bonds of justice. Songs that set the captive free. We have an opportunity to sing songs that speak of love in the face of hatred. If you listen closely, you will find Mary's song of hope remixed in and throughout our daily lives.
The truth that we speak today turns into songs of hope and justice for generations to come.
While I was in seminary and my grandmother was still alive, she helped me finish my family systems theory paper. We talked through our family tree and she told me a story that dated back to slavery. She said that we had an enslaved relative named Mary. According to the family lore, Mary was said to be six feet tall and wore long braids. It was said that, in the most unfavorable moments of her enslaved reality, she would strip down and stand in defiance on the front porch. Now, there was no way to verify this aspect of the story, but I did not dare challenge my grandmother Ann Hyman Amaker!
Now, here's the interesting part. When Mary was freed, they asked her what she wanted. (Again, this is not common during the unprecedented time of U.S. chattel slavery of transplanted Africans.) Mary could not read or write but she asked for a piece of land to build a church. And to this day, there stands Mary's Chapel in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, where my grandmother's people are from.
You see, our Mary lived the heart of the Magnificat in her one request for a chapel for generations to come. I don't have documentation to authenticate my grandmother's story, but that story was tucked away in my grandmother's heart to pass along to me to say that we were connected to a collective legacy of the hopeful even in the face of unprecedented pain, difficulty, or cruelty.
In the same tradition of Mary, the Godbearer, mother of Jesus, our family's Enslaved Mary sang a song of hope in her request for a future that was beyond her own imagination.
People of faith, what kind of songs will we sing while we wait? We can name all that is wrong. We can name all that is painful. We can name every institution and social ill that needs to be dismantled. While it is critical to sing the blues and to lament the pain in our world, it is also critical to celebrate the dawning of a new day.
There is power in songs that reminds us of God's everlasting mercy. There is power in writing lyrics that give a panoramic view of God's justice and God's ability to turn things around. There is power in the name of Jesus who ushers in the transformation of the world. Mary knew this while she held the evidence of God's goodness in her womb.
Just like the Magnificat, our songs of unprecedented hope, love, joy, and peace tell a story that God rights the wrongs. God restores the brokenness, and even in the face of fear and death, God offers new life in unexpected ways.
Friends, I leave you with this - a few ways to write songs of hope and love and joy and peace.
First, be inspired. Let Mary's song inspire you. Her words reach back through history and time. Her words echo the prophets and speak to the evidence of God's mercy among the people. And her experience of bearing God, in the flesh, into the world, reminds us that God sees, God hears, and God remembers.
Be anchored - In this season of a global pandemic, with cries of racial injustice and a shift in the way we live in a digital world, it is easy to be tossed to and fro with anxiety, stress, fear, and uncertainty. Remain anchored in the assurance of God's presence and in the mystery of God's activity that happens right below the surface. In my home, I own an acrylic painting of Mary and Elizabeth created by Presbyterian minister and visual artist, Lauren Wright Pittman [https://sanctifiedart.org/creativeteam]. While it is appropriate for this Advent season, this picture is on display in our living room all year round.
The image depicts the two women with rich brown skin tones and bellies robust and full of life. Mary is illuminated and Elizabeth's hair has hints of gray. They face each other in the painting, and each has a hand on the other's belly. Every day, I see this painting, I am rooted, I am grounded, and I am anchored. It is a reminder of God's mystery, God's salvation, God's purpose, God's love, and God's ability to usher in a whole new way of life in secret.
And finally, be a witness. We must bear witness to the hope of the soon-coming king. As we are inspired and anchored, we must tell the story of God's love and God's power and God's activity in our lives.
Tell the story of God's assurance in your life, in the lives of your neighbors, families, and friends.
Tell the story of God's strong arm who brings down the prideful and the powerful and creates new reality and space for all.
Tell the story of God's faithfulness as you recognize new ideas, new ministries, and new mercies that are springing up all around you.
And as we wait for the coming of Christ, and as we wait for who we will become in 2021 and beyond, be inspired, be anchored, be a witness. And compose songs of love for the loveless. Collaborate on songs of hope for the hopeless. Create space for songs of joy for ages to come.
In the name of the One who was and is and is to come, Amen.