Rev. Lacey Hunter
Text: Luke 1:39-55
December 23, 2018
Sermon: Mary Was a Freedom Fighter
Epworth United Methodist Church
Who here has heard of the “Bechdel Test?” The Bechdel Test is a tool used to track the active presence of women in works of fiction including books, films and TV shows. The rules now known as “The Bechdel Test” were first created in 1985 based on the work of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In Bechdel’s cartoon strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” Bechdel depicts two women looking for a film to watch. One of the women, her name is Ginger, explains that she will only go see a movie if it meets the following criteria:
The movie has to have at least two women in it,
who talk to each other,
about something besides a man.
Another rule has since been added—the women have to be named.
The Bechdel Test comes from a long quest for gender equality in works of fiction. More than that it comes from the deep longing of women to see ourselves represented, to hear our names said, the complexity of our stories told, our humanity acknowledged, respected and lifted up in the public sphere.
This test is as basic as it gets, a small entry point into the depth of a woman’s story and life. It is not too much to ask for, to see two women, with names, talking, about something other than a man. As a women in their thirties, I can safely say that most of my life passes the Bechdel Test, yet I, we, rarely get to see that represented in popular media. Less than half of popular fiction meets these requirements.
And what of the Church and our Christian tradition? Do our hymns, scriptures and teachings pass the Bechdel Test? If you were to run through a list of biblical women, Esther, Rahab, Deborah, Miriam, Mary Magdalene, you would discover that none of their stories pass the test. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about today’s scripture passage is that it does pass. In the whole new testament, the only story that passes is Mary’s Magnificat, the song of praise that Mary sings to and with Elizabeth. This is a powerful biblical moment, a revolutionary turn of events where the active presence of women is lifted up and their vision for a different world is magnified. In this passage we witness Elizabeth and Mary take delight in one another. Here Elizabeth and Mary give witness to the role each of them and women play in changing the world. Here Elizabeth and Mary acknowledge the magic and the power that dwells inside of them. Here Mary’s hopes and visions for a just future, for a future built on a true peace that is based on the flourishing of the most vulnerable, are voiced and set in motion.
The candles that we light each week during advent are meant to center us and ground us in our preparations for the coming of Jesus—God made flesh among us. On this fourth Sunday of Advent as we light the candle of Peace, how is Mary and her magnificat, her revolutionary freedom song inspiring us to be Peace-bearers?
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. writes about the dangers of preferring “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” When I reflect on the past year, the lived realities of movements like #MeToo, #BelieveHer and #TransLivesWillNotBeErased, it becomes all too clear how much we need the wisdom and encouragement of Elizabeth and Mary if we are to achieve positive peace. We need Mary’s Magnificat to confront the blatant misogyny and hatred for women and girls that dominates the political spheres and the daily micro and macro aggressions of being female-bodied, female-expressing people walking down the street, into a bathroom, getting a drink, dancing, working, protesting, preaching, loving and living. We need Mary’s Magnificat to remind us, to magnify for us what life-giving power rather than dominating power feels like, what truth-telling sounds like, what peace-filled future is possible. We need to understand all the tactics and possibilities that Mary magnifies as we prepare for the presence of God to be made flesh and dwell among us, and the many ways that can and will change our lives.
As we call upon the presence, courage and vision of Mary, it is important to name what the Christian tradition typically does to Mary. As protestants, we typically only talk about Mary in the days leading up to Christmas. Rather than focusing on the revolutionary words that Mary exchanges with Elizabeth in this scripture passage, too often we focus exclusively on Mary in relationship to men, most specifically, her son Jesus. This tradition reinforces so many damaging visions of who women are and are supposed to be. Here are just some of the names and adjectives most often used in hymns and scholarship about Mary, names often substituted for Mary entirely, names and ideas that shape our imagination of who Mary is:
Highly Favoured Lady
Pure, Sweet, Mild
Some Fair Lily
Gentle and Bowed Head
Meek, Undefiled, Lowly Virgin
Queen of Virgins
A Maid Engaged to Joseph
These names for Mary tell a very particular story. A story of a woman with no name of her own, whose name is her husband’s name, whose name is an expectation of her body, whose name is her body detached from her life, whose name is passive, whose name is voiceless, whose name is permissible.
She is the Maid Engaged to Joseph.
The Lowly, Meek Virgin that Gabriel visits.
The Virgin Mother of the Son of God the Father.
It is important for us to remember that this is the story of Mary that Christians have been telling for centuries. In a world and country that has been shaped by a tradition where God is Father, where God is male and the only names and stories we have of women are told in relation to the Father God,
the Son of God,
the male angels,
the male prophets,
the sons they bare,
and while they are baring sons these women are to be chaste, undefiled virgins if they are to be holy, then church I ask you, are we really that surprised by the misogyny flooding our government offices and courts and the need for campaigns like #MeToo, #SayHerName, and #BelieveHer? These names for Mary do not help us understand and come to voice around what has happened to our bodies and what we have survived.
Whatever our gender is, these names have shaped us. These names have been passed down from generation to generation and guide the ways we relate to one another. The Good News found in Luke’s Gospel today is that these names for Mary, for women, for any of us, are not the whole story, nor really the story at all.
I invite you to sit with Mary’s song. Spend time with her words. Practice repeating them, find their melody, let them move in you and sink into your body because once a prayer lives in your body, a new world opens up. It was through this practice where I first met Mary, the Prophet, the Freedom Fighter, the Peace Bearer. It was then that I realized how Jesus became a radical activist; how could he not have been when he was raised by a woman like Mary, a woman who sings this kind of freedom song.
My partner Sharon imagines that the Magnificat was the lullaby that Mary sang to Jesus each night as he fell asleep. And what of this possibility! What kind of kin-dom making tactics seeped into his body and spirit as he learned from Mary? Mary, who realizing she was pregnant, sought the company and the wisdom of other women. Mary, who brought new life into the world by singing a song of revolution, a praise song that committed her entire life to co-creating the kin-dom of God on earth.
What if the prophetic vision that Mary held and committed her life to, this freedom song that Mary sang, that was passed down to her by her ancestor Hannah from a long line of prophetic witness, what if this vision became a part of Jesus’ body and is invited to now become a part of our body? What if when we talk of Mary, we talked about the freedom fighter, the peace bearer and listened for the commitments she is calling us into?
What if every time we prayed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of her servant,” we saw Mary’s creative acts of resistance, her daily rituals and practices of care, the struggles and violations she survived and the pleasures she delighted in? What if we heard her chosen name? What if in this prayer we saw all the LGBTQ Methodist Clergy living into the power of their vocational callings, discipleship and commitment to harmony within the Church even as the denomination prepares to vote on their very humanity and dignity this coming February? What if being a peace bearer means giving ourselves to the unexpected callings placed on our hearts?
What if every time we prayed, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is her name,” we heard the poet Aja Monet who wrote:
i never met a woman who wasn’t
fighting for freedom
an entire life
What if our prayers opened us up to the truth that Mary reveals? What if in this prayer we saw Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill and every woman whose truth reveals the brokenness of this world and the fight for freedom? What if being a peace bearer means honoring the stories of our resiliency?
What if every time we prayed, “God’s mercy is for those who fear her from generation to generation,” we saw the ways Mary put her body on the line and showed up and kept showing up because she believed in liberation, because she believed in co-creating freedom with God? What if we believed Mary’s vulnerability was the source of her strength and the place of all divine power? What if in this prayer we saw the thousands of asylum seekers fleeing to the borders and those who go to greet them in solidarity because together we carry a vision of God’s promise of mercy? What if being a peace bearer means living out the knowledge that our lives and freedom are woven together?
What if every time we prayed, “God has shown strength with her arm; she has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” we heard Mary calling out, “Justice!” Speaking truth to power. What if we saw her teaching nonviolence, resistance, resiliency and the ways her teachings shaped and are shaping movements? What if in this prayer we saw women like Emma Gonzelez who having survived the High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, amid the trauma endured there and ongoing harassment for being a “dyke,” has responded by co-founding March for Our Lives and helped inspire youth movements for gun-control advocacy and voter registration for young people? What if being a peace bearer means listening to and following the leadership of those most directly impacted by injustice?
What if every time we prayed, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; she has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” we saw Mary’s visions for thriving communities, just economies and shared governance? What if it was these teachings and visions that Jesus recalled in his body when he turned over the tables in the temple and when he invited everyone to the meal? What if in this prayer we saw today’s movements that dream of collective liberation, from Palestine to Tijuana to Oakland? What if being a peace bearer means creating spaces for grace and experimenting together in building God’s kin-dom on earth?
What if every time we prayed, “she has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy, according to the promise she made to our ancestors, to Sarah and her descendants forever,” we saw the women who taught her and the women before them? What if we knew their names and how they fought for freedom? What if we saw Mary’s respect for the wisdom of her ancestors, her attention to the magic placed in her care, her persistence in making a way out of no way? What if being a peace bearer means understanding the complex legacies of our ancestors and preparing for the seven generations to come? What if when we talk of Mary, we listen for Mary the freedom fighter, the peace bearer?
When she is called “Gentle,” let us not make her something to be taken advantage of rather let us honor the fierce and steadfast love she greeted the world with even when it sought to destroy her. When she is called, “Meek” may we not disregard her but listen for the depth of silence, the ways her silence opens up a place for new voices and makes space at the table. “if i listen more than i speak / don’t mean i speak any less” writes the poet Aja Monet.
As we gather around the candle of Peace, what Magnificats do you see and hear rising up today? How will we be part of the story of magnifying the presence of justice? How will we be peace bearers? May we know in the name, “Mary,” her anger that God could not look away from, her calm that overturned and transformed oppression, the voice of her listening, and the freedom of her song. Inspired by all that Mary taught, survived, fought for, believed in, and created, may we today and everyday, join her and the chorus of freedom fighters and peace bearers in praising God. Amen.