The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday December 17, 2017.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Because I know that you can’t see my footnotes when I’m speaking, I want you to know that large portions of what I’m going to share with you tonight come from Paul Fromberg’s excellent book, The Art of Transformation.

So our gospel story this evening is a familiar story.  The angel Gabriel is sent to Mary’s home in small town Galilee with a message.  “Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.”

And Mary thought, “That’s an odd way to greet someone, I wonder what’s going on?”

And Gabriel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

And Mary said, “Cool. But that’s weird because I know how babies are made, and what you’re describing doesn’t match with anything I’ve ever heard before.”

And Gabriel says, “You’re right, it’s totally weird, but God likes weird and all the details are sorted. Don’t worry about it. And you know what else? Your relative Elizabeth, who is waaaaay to old to have a baby, is also pregnant. It’s all part of God’s plan to turn the world on its head.”

And Mary said, “Cool. Let’s do this.”

And they did.

After this meeting with Gabriel, and after Mary has had some time to think, she visits Elizabeth, a meeting that will inspire Mary to burst into song.  A song that we still sing to this day. A song that we have given the fancy name, “The Magnificat.”

This week I packed up a parcel to send to my Goddaughter.  It contains Christmas presents for her and her brother, a stack of CDs, and a note explaining that CDs are an ancient technology used to store music and I hope someone in her home still owns a machine old enough to play them.

I’ve sent her my collection of musicals because it turns out that this is something we have in common. Finding a particular musical, learning everything we can about it, learning every single word, and then moving on to the next one.  We both love musicals, and I want to share some of my favourites with her.

Some people claim they don’t like musicals, I’m married to such a person. Some people claim they don’t like musicals, but I suspect they are lying, I am married to such a person.

The most common reason I’ve heard for disliking musicals is that they are “so unrealistic, I mean, people don’t just go around breaking into song all the time.”

Which, I think is really sad, because personally, I break into song all the time. I even compose my own at a rate of about one- two songs per day.

Mike and I have the same conversation at least a few times a week. At some point he will pause, look at me very seriously and say, “Do you think anyone other than me has any idea how weird you are?”

And I say, “No, but go ahead and tell them.”

To which he replies, “There’s no point. No one would ever believe me.”

This usually occurs after he’s caught me singing my song of the day.

So maybe it’s weird to break out into song, but it’s also very, very Biblical.

People in the Bible break into song all the time. Cross over the red sea? Sing a song.  Sitting by the shores of Babylon? Sing a song.  Happy, angry, sad? Sing a song. Frustrated, joy-filled, mistreated by the ruling powers of the day? Sing a song.

There are about as many types of songs in the Bible as there are people willing to sing them. These songs express the whole range of human emotions and experiences. There’s even a whole book of really sexy songs, that we rarely use in church, called rather poetically, the “Song of Songs.”

The Book of Luke, where tonight’s gospel text is taken from, is also filled with people bursting into song. There are four in the early part of the book that are still prayed regularly today. Whenever we say “Glory to God” we’re echoing the angels’ song to the shepherds.  If you pray morning and evening prayer, you’ll likely pray with songs by Mary, Simeon, and Zachariah – or as we’re calling him at our 4pm service, “Mr. Z.” All of these songs are taken from Luke.

Maybe the gospel of Luke is actually a musical.

Shortly after the events detailed in tonight’s gospel passage, Mary decides to pay her cousin Elizabeth a visit and Paul Fromberg observes that “Mary arrives, unannounced and pregnant, at the home of her cousin Elizabeth and the scene ends in song: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’

In the next scene, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, takes the stage to praise God’s strong, stick-by-you love to the people at the birth of their son, John: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, looking favorably on us and redeeming us.” After Jesus is born, the angels tear heaven open and sing their heads off about the glory of God that is crashing into our world: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And then old Simeon will creak through his song of mercy spreading from the light of the baby Jesus: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation.’

When people come to the limits of their lives, they sing. People sing in these liminal spaces because singing is the only thing that makes sense when you’re faced with a mystery.

Mary’s song is particularly powerful in the face of the mystery she bears in her body. She sings it as if the good news she bears is already accomplished: “You cast down the might from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”

She recognizes something about God that we still have trouble getting: God is siding with all of the beaten and excluded people that have dared to sing in the face of suffering and subjugation. Ever since there have been people who were denied their essential dignity, God has been right there, right next to them, preparing a way out of all that darkness. God has always been like this, and the ones like Mary, the ones who see that truth plainly, finally have all of the world’s power; that is worth singing.” (106)

As many of you know we take Advent very seriously around here and it’s a practice that I have developed a deep appreciation of over the past ten years or so that I’ve been coming here.  One of the major objections I’ve heard from people who are skeptical of the practice is that they love Christmas carols so much they can’t imagine having to wait to sing them until the 25th of December.  They could get behind Advent if it had a better soundtrack.

Well, maybe it’s because I spent so many years working in retail, or maybe it’s because I think some of the most beautiful music this community has ever composed is Advent music, but I can’t think of a better way to ruin the beauty of either season, then listening to what our society calls “Christmas music” for two solid months.  I had to run into the post office the other day and that 15 minutes of music was more than enough for me.

That music – which contained a mix of songs about Rudolph and the Baby Jesus – demanded nothing of me other than a sort of  “sentimental nostalgia” for a time when all will be calm, and all will be bright, and everyone will be happy because it’s Christmas.

It’s a tempting kind of music, it can tend to stick in our heads, but it does not satisfy. It’s a song that tells us that we are not enough, that we will never be enough. It is not good news.

But we can sing, right along with Mary, a very different kind of song. A song filled with good news. A song that invites us to image a different way of being, a song that invites us to participate in the re-creation and redemption of this world.

Personally, I love the fact that when everyone around me seems to be getting more and more stressed out trying to arrange for a “perfect” Christmas, this community calls me into the waiting of Advent. And then, when everyone around me has grown tired of the carols and their Christmas trees have lost all their needles, I can settle in for 12 whole days of Christmas – complete with an Itunes playlist containing multiple versions of all my favourite carols.

Seven years ago this community released a book called “Beautiful Mercy” which I have to admit that until recently has been gathering dust on the shelf but I’m rediscovering it now and it’s a really stunning piece of work.

It includes a CD of music written by people in this community, including a version of Mary’s song by Jaylene Johnson.  It’s a song filled with good news of, as the title suggests, “Amazing Love.”

My favourite line in this version is “My soul sings, God is great, and my spirit lets down her weight.”

Singing does this for me. It helps me realize what is weighing me down and it helps me set down that weight, even if I know I will soon need to pick it back up again. Even when I know that my words of praise are less an accurate reflection of how I am feeling in that moment and more of an act of defiance.   I don’t always sing about peace, joy, hope, and love because I am feeling those things. Sometimes as I am singing my soul is heavy with a longing to feel them.

Singing can be an act of comfort, an act of praise, an act of defiant hope.

“[When we sing, we] claim the right that God gives us to pay attention to the Good News, and sing in the face of the bad news. Singing lifts us out of the world where the weak are dominated by the powerful, and the shame of the ashamed is increased. Singing helps us see the world the way that God sees it: always filled with the potential for transformation and beauty.” (107)

Singing allows our spirits to let down their weight.

“When we take up Mary’s counter-cultural song, we can actually sing out our lives not for what they are now, but for what God promises: a life full of courage, freedom, and love that imitates the same stick-by-youness that is the very definition of God’s love. The God of whom Mary sings is the God who delights in what is small and insignificant in the estimation of all the big deals and power brokers in the world. It is God’s delight to take the most insignificant people imaginable and give them the power to do extraordinary things. That is God’s promise.” (107)

To gather together on a cold dark December evening to sing together “may seem like a small thing in the face of the worries of this present darkness. But it has always been from such small things that greater light spreads across the world.” (107)

So let’s sing. Let’s sing songs of hope in the face of despair during Advent.  Let’s sing of peace, joy, hope and love coming from the root of Jesse. Let’s sing songs of “Joy to the World” and “Tidings of Great Joy” during the Christmas season.  Let’s sing Mary’s defiant song of a world turned upsidedown by God’s amazing love to magnify the greatness of our God.

And when we sing, may we sing like we really mean the words we’re singing – whether that’s because we believe each word with all our heart, our because we’re holding out a defiant kind of hope that, despite the fact that we can’t believe today, we may be able to believe tomorrow.

May our singing be filled with a longing for beauty, for a better world than the one we experienced today. May our singing let others know that they are welcome to join in the song. May our singing be free from the shame that we’ve been taught to connect to the quality of our voices.

What is your song like these days? I don’t necessarily mean, what is the song that when you hear it you turn up the volume proclaiming, “It’s my song!” I mean, what is capturing your attention? What is closest to your heart?

Is it a hymn of praise? of lament? of wonder? of impatience? Have you perhaps become so busy that you’re not even sure? Have you forgotten how to listen to and sing your own song?

It’s can be a very worthwhile exercise to reflect on the songs that impact you deeply – those from scripture, popular culture, and the ones you write for yourself.

Where have you experienced moments of pure joy or wonder? When was the last time you let yourself play or embrace a childlike sense of wonder without worrying if other people might think you’re weird?

What are the things you hold closest to your heart? The things you might be hesitant to share with other people. The things that make you tear up when you try to express them.  What are you longing for this Advent?

If you have stopped singing. If you feel so tired and wounded that you don’t even feel up to a song of lament, be gentle with yourself and ask these questions: When was the last time you sang? Why did you stop? What would it take to begin to sing again?

Whatever your song is, I hope you find time to sing it. Whatever your song is, I hope you can honour the feelings and the emotions that it expresses.

And I hope you’ll find time not just to sing that metaphorical song, but I hope you’ll find time over this next year to literally sing with other people, to sing with us.

In our current culture, it’s a weird thing to sing with other people, it’s a weird thing to defiantly declare that those on the margins of society are loved, and valued, it’s a weird things to proclaim that this world isn’t all there is and that better things are coming and then to get excited to work towards those changes.

So let’s keep the weird in the season, let’s sing our songs whatever they may be, and let’s listen to the songs of those around us lend our voices.