Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Some of you know I sang in my college’s gospel choir, back in the day. Such a fantastic opportunity for a blonde from a very white, very small town in upstate New York – the friendships alone, in that largely African American group, were a real gift to me. And the music was so much fun! Coming from church traditions in which we were pretty quiet in the pews, without a whole lot of talking back at those up front, it was also a great introduction to “call and response” style worship.
You’re probably familiar with the rich tradition of black preaching, in which the congregation gets in on the action, calling out as the sermon progresses, to encourage the speaker, to help fire her up or to keep him going. “Preach it, sister!” “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” Or when the sermon maybe isn’t going so well, “Help him out, Lord!”
Soloists in gospel choirs get this same kind of support. As flourishes were added and we were treated to incredible improvisation, the most common call, at least where our particular choir was involved, was so simple, and yet so powerful. “Sing!” fellow choir members would shout as the soprano notes climbed. “Sing!” said with a proud smile, at a friend’s musical achievement, and other times “Sing!” said quietly, through tears, because what was being sung resonated so deeply with the listener. “Sing!” as we were taught brand new songs and “Sing!” as we enjoyed songs we’d been singing our whole lives long. “Sing!” as God reached down and touched hearts and lives through melodies and harmonies.
Even among Presbyterians, for all our lack of energetic shouting from the pews on the average Sunday morning, we actually do analogous things. I’ve sometimes said that our more formal responses during prayer time here can function as a sort of “Amen!” As a “yes, Lord, what he said / what she said. Me too!” Our words may say “God in our mercy, hear our prayer.” But there’s a level at which our hearts are saying: “Speak the truth, sister!” “Preach it, brother.” “Yes!” I actually think that when we clap after a beautiful choral anthem, it can also be a way of responding like this. In our tradition, we’re not used to calling out with words in worship, so we offer polite applause instead. But what I believe our hearts are saying in those moments is: “Sing, choir, sing!”
We spent this fall studying together the words of the prophet Amos. So we entered Advent this particular year with the prophetic words ringing in our ears. And I suddenly had this image of Mary singing her song in Luke 1 - as a soloist, yes, in a quiet moment with her cousin Elizabeth, but also as part of a far larger choir. A choir reaching across time and space. Because her words, too, are so clearly prophetic words.
Mary tells of a God who brings down the powerful from their thrones (Luke 1:52), and from the choir of God’s prophets I hear Amos cry out “Sing!” For Amos was all about calling the wealthy and powerful to account, especially those who oppressed the poor, and crushed the needy. (Amos 4:1) Mary speaks of God’s strength to scatter the proud and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) and I hear Isaiah cry out “Sing!” For he, too, spoke of God judging with righteousness the poor, and deciding with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isaiah 11:4) Mary declares God’s great “mercy … from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50) and I hear echoes of the prophet Micah who promised good things coming in God’s future, a time when everyone could “sit under their own vines, and under their own fig trees, and no one should make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4) Micah, too, cries out to Mary - “Sing!” For Mary clearly knows that the birth of her child isn’t just any birth. The whole world is about to turn, with the birth of her son. Jesus will usher in a kingdom where the last shall be first and the first last. Where the richest are those who’ve given everything away. Where those who lose their lives for his sake will find them. And all Mary’s fellow prophets through the ages cheer her on, saying: “Sing!”
Meanwhile, back in her own historical context, Mary sings in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, who knows what it is to be treated as a second-class citizen simply for being female, and worse than that, scorned and mocked for being unable for so many years to bear a child. I picture Elizabeth, hearing Mary’s words about God looking with favor on the lowliness of his servants, and calling out “Sing!”
And the little one who leapt in Elizabeth’s womb that day was none other than John the Baptist, who would himself grow up to be a fiery preacher of justice and righteousness. In his pre-birth excitement I imagine little John shouting “Sing, aunt Mary, sing!”
Never underestimate the power of a song.
Luther Seminary president David Lose shares the story of his visit to Eastern Germany a few years after the fall of the Berlin wall. “In addition to spending time in Berlin, [he begins], the group with whom I travelled also had a chance to meet with leaders of the resistance in Leipzig. Many have overlooked this part of the story, but for several months prior to the fall of the wall in Berlin, peaceful protests were held by the citizens of Leipzig. Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church, the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas, they would sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. One of our hosts told me, [Lose says] that after the fall of the wall, [a pastor helping to lead] the resistance asked a former secret police commander why they hadn’t crushed this movement as they had so many others. His answer: they had no contingency plan for song and prayer… [Now] I realize [Lose continues, referencing our own day]… that a few voices drawn together in song in late December may seem a small thing in the face of the … worries of the age, but surely no smaller than those voices raised in Leipzig… or in Selma [Alabama during the Civil Rights movement in our own nation] … or in the Judean hill country so many centuries ago. Mary’s God, we should remember, delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things…”
So we should never underestimate the power of a song.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent in the year 2016, we find ourselves in a nation shattered by what should be an unimaginable degree of gun violence. We find ourselves in a country where, over 50 years after Selma, Americans with dark skin are still finding themselves terrorized by Americans with light skin. We find ourselves in a world frightened to death by acts of terror and cruelty seemingly everywhere we look. A world in which millions of refugees are running for their lives and seeking shelter in places very far from home.
And yet it’s in this very same world that we continue to see God’s light shining in the darkness. In acts of generosity and kindness. In demonstrations of tremendous courage and in offers of comfort. In communities of faith like this one where we gather for worship, where we lift our voices in song and prayer both in spite of and because of what the news has reported in a particular week. And I don’t think there can be any question we see God’s light shining in moments like those we enjoyed last Sunday, as the children of this congregation donned sheep suits and picked up shepherd staffs, twirled in angel wings and sang their little hearts out about the incredible good news of this season. If prophetic words are desperately needed this December, it isn’t only because of what’s going wrong in our world. A great deal of goodness is at stake, too. Calling it like we see it, saying what we see, means celebrating what’s right, as well as naming what’s wrong. We need to keep the faith, to guard our hope, to protect our spirits from bitterness and apathy because all of those little spirits are looking to us, to set the tone for how Christians behave when the world around us can be hard and harsh. And how do we behave? We name what’s wrong and we set about making it right. We notice what’s right and we celebrate and share it. We put one foot in front of the other, by God’s grace, doing the best we can in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, and we give thanks for anything and everything we can find to be grateful for. We need to keep the faith, to guard our hope, to protect our spirits from bitterness because all of those little spirits are looking to us, to set the tone.
It’s in such a world that we called ourselves to worship this morning and joined our own voices in song. It’s in such a world that we opened up the Scriptures this morning to hear Mary’s song.
And here’s your chance, if you want to give your own preacher some help today. Each time I cue you, I invite you call out together the word “Sing!”
For in a world that so badly needs good news, we hear Mary tell of God’s mercy and of God’s might. And we say to her: “Sing!” We hear her tell of the proud being scattered and the rich sent away empty, while those in desperate need find their needs are met. And we say to Mary: “Sing!” We pray for a world to come that will look back on this dark age of violence and racism and terrorism and wonder how it ever could have been so. And we say to Mary: “Sing!” We long for a world in which the rich aren’t so unbelievably much richer than the poor. And so we say: “Sing!” We yearn for tyrants to be removed from their thrones and for the hungry to be filled with good things. And all these things inspire us today to say to Mary: “Sing!”
With every ounce of holy longing we can muster, the good people of Magnolia Presbyterian Church hear Mary’s words, and we know what’s at stake for those precious little spirits we so enjoyed watching in their costumes last Sunday. We also know what’s at stake for their precious little counterparts … in Aleppo … in Sudan … in homeless shelters right here in Seattle. We know what’s at stake, and so we call out across the ages to this brave young prophet, saying: “Sing!”
We’ll now have an opportunity ourselves to sing the words of Mary’s song, and I invite you to hear in the background the voices of God’s prophets. Prophets from Israel and Judea, prophets from Leipzig and from Selma. As we lift up our voices together, imagine them calling out to us: “Sing, people of God, sing!”
For we should never, ever underestimate the power of a song. Amen.
 David Lose, “What Time is It? Preaching Advent in the Year of Luke,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2015, pp. 14-15.