Sermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, Memorial Church, November 15, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
If you are on social media, I am sure you have stumbled upon this trend of #blessed memes on Instagram or “feeling blessed” posts on Facebook. Often these are accompanied by a photo of someone enjoying an extravagant holiday meal, or taking an exotic vacation to a remote island, or posing with their family in coordinated outfits sitting on a sand dune. Yet, I know that I am guilty of perpetuating the #blessed myth. My Instagram feed is full of photos of my two-year-old son, Henry, with his golden curls, sparkling blue eyes, and a smile that lights up a room. Our holiday card last year was a photo of our family against a backdrop of golden Aspen mountains. It looks so unreal that several family members asked if it was photoshop-ed. Conspicuously absent are the photos of the toy tornado in our living room, Henry throwing a tantrum in the middle of dinner, or Henry’s face covered in peanut butter — and his hands, the highchair, the floor, my hair.
Yet, if I am honest with myself — I know better. I need to do better. For in ministry, I find myself trying to push against this superficial notion of blessing of the #blessed movement. It detracts from knowing the deeper, more abiding understanding of God’s love and mercy.
There is an even more calculated and sinister side of the #blessed movement. For “blessed” has become a not-so-subtle code term for living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term is a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well, and all seems right with the world — or at least one’s own little corner of the world. A famous cautionary tale captured by the most recent season of The Crown retells the story of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s fairytale wedding and the desperately unhappy ending of their marriage. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we must be careful of the conclusions we make based upon a single snapshot.
Psychologists have begun to study the adverse effects that this can have on a person’s psyche. Toxic positivity is the concept that keeping positive, and only keeping positive, is the right way to live your life. Focusing on only positive things and rejecting anything else can, in fact, trigger negative emotions. These unpleasant emotions can grow as they remain unprocessed in the mind and in the body.
2020 has revealed that our cultural obsession with toxic positivity is simply unsustainable. As the title of a recent article in the New York Times said, “Happiness won’t save you.” We’ve experienced fear and uncertainty thanks to a worldwide pandemic, social isolation, racial injustice, climate disasters, and political upheaval. At some point, the indulgences to lift the spirits and distractions to alleviate the discomfort no longer work. Suffering does not dissolve when we do not acknowledge it. It festers and it grows. Feeling blessed cannot be at the expense of denying pain or suffering.
In our Gospel lesson for today Mary sings of a blessedness that stands in stark contrast to our culture’s attitude of #blessed. Mary sings this joyful canticle upon learning the news that God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. And yet, according to our standards, Mary does not look at all blessed. She comes from a small village in the forgotten corner of the Roman Empire. Her family is without name, resources, or privilege. In all likelihood, her family struggles with feeding, housing and clothing themselves. Let alone a newborn. Mary is little more than a child herself.
Her friends and neighbors see her as a disgrace because she is unmarried and pregnant. In another telling of this story Matthew shares that initially Joseph, her own fiancé, wanted to dismiss her quietly to avoid scandal. Furthermore, as she will soon learn from Simeon, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Being the mother of the Messiah is scarcely an unmixed blessing.
And yet, despite all this, somewhere from deep within her moves Mary to praise God for honoring her. Mary sings of a God whose blessing is abiding, mercy is resilient, and joy is defiant. Mary sings in the language of upheaval and revolution. Yet Mary’s song is more than a political manifesto or theological discourse. She shares specific and concrete ways by which God will change the world. Mary’s God saves not just souls, but "living, breathing, embodied people." The God she sings about is not content merely to point people toward heaven. God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food. And rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, God lifts them up, granting them dignity and honor, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation.
Now clearly God’s saving acts are good news for the poor and lowly. But what does Mary’s song mean for the wealthy and the powerful? For at the same time God uplifts the downtrodden and maligned, God also dethrones rulers and humbles the mighty. God overthrows the world’s power structures that buttress their status.
So, is there nothing but judgment for those with power and privilege? We sometimes portray judgment and salvation as opposites, yet for God sometimes they go hand in hand. Those who stand in awe of themselves and their own power will be judged. Yet, when they turn their gaze from themselves and their own accomplishments, when their awe is directed to God — then there is mercy for them, too. Mary’s song addresses all of the ways that we as humans set ourselves apart from one another. Yet wherever we draw a line between rich and poor, between right and wrong, between us and them, between you and me — God is on the other side.
Professor and author, Brene Brown, has spent over twenty years researching human shame and vulnerability. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brown makes the distinction between fitting in and belonging. Brown offers that when we consider our place in the world and how we relate to others, often we think of ourselves in terms of over and against. We are consistently categorizing people and comparing ourselves to assess where we fit in the pecking order of society. The objective of “fitting in” is to blend in with the crowd, to maintain the status quo, to not rock the boat. It is going with the flow without checking where the current is taking you. Now this might sound a bit benign as a way to relate to the world, but “fitting in” is based upon the assumption that there are those who are in and there are those who are out. One’s fitting in is predicated upon others being excluded. So, you post that photo of a perfectly curated Thanksgiving dinner. You want to count your blessings during a very difficult year. You want to share your gratitude for what you have, but what does it signify for those who had to spend the holiday alone, for those who could not afford a turkey this year, for those who mark Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. Yes, it is important to be grateful. I am not saying otherwise. My question is what are you grateful for? It is an attempt to fit in with what society believes you should value, or does it exclude others from partaking in the joy?
Brown offers that belonging is an altogether different project from fitting in. Her definition of belonging is “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
Belonging is not about contorting ourselves to meet the expectations or desires of those around us like fitting in. It points to something much greater. It is about standing on your own two feet and to share what you know to be deeply true, even if others might not believe you. It is about recognizing that divine spark within yourself and to not be afraid to share it with the world. The blessedness of which Mary sings comes from her deep and abiding knowing that she belongs to God. Society might question — who is she to claim to be the source of a miracle. She might not fit the picture of who the world expects to be the mother of the Messiah. And yet, this young Palestine peasant girl bravely proclaims that God has a divine calling for her.
As Brown shared belonging is about “both standing alone in the wilderness” and ‘being a part of something.” Mary has a steadfast and abiding sense of God’s love for her. She removes herself from the voices of societal expectations so she can listen for God’s beckoning. Mary stands alone to proclaim salvation for all.
The work of “fitting in” may be about drawing the line between who is in and who is out, but the work of belonging is about always expanding the circle so all are drawn in. Mary’s new song of belonging affirms a “both/and” existence rather than an “either/or.” Mary is a virgin and mother. Christ is human and divine. Both can be true. We can stand alone and belong to one another. We are each uniquely created in God’s image and we are all equally God’s beloved children.
Mary’s song of belonging affirms that we can be people both of heart and head, mystical and resistant, contemplative and justice oriented, spiritually and socially alive.
Mary’s song affirms that God is always making things new. Therefore, God’s work is never done. Fitting in may be about maintaining the status quo. Belonging asks us to remain open to always opening up ourselves to the possibility of surprise and transformation. As the prophet Isaiah shared God turns swords into ploughshares. This work is eternal. It does not stop. For we know that we can always be better friends, spouses, parents, neighbors as we say to the new thing that God is doing with and within us.
The work of which Mary sings is humbling — and quite honestly exhausting. We need the support of others to have the strength to continually open ourselves to God’s calling. Mary has the blessing of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary gains strength and hope because she and Elizabeth both say yes to what God is doing in their lives. Although God asks us to stand apart, God does not call us to go it alone. The blessing that God gives us is to continue inviting people to say yes to what God is doing with them and within them.
This Sunday we light the candle of hope as we set out on our Advent journey. May this Advent be an invitation to move into an imagination which differs from what on certain days, the world seems so obviously to be, an invitation to rejoice over what can be and what will be.