Channeling Your Inner Mary

The first church I served right out of seminary was actually two.  It was part of a two-point charge served when I was under the United Methodist system.  Both were in the Upper Mojave Desert, about twenty-five miles apart on Highway 395 — Inyokern and Randsburg, a stone’s throw from Death Valley.

One of my new acquaintances out there inquired early on, “Forney, what did you do to the bishop to get sent out here?”  Another friend in Temple City announced my appointment from the pulpit one Sunday in church we had been attending, “John’s finally found out where his appointment is going to be:  Unicorn and Rancid.”

The smallest church of the two, Randsburg United Methodist, had only four members left and my job was to collect a bequest given to the church, then close the place up.  This bequest had been tied up in court due to the sloth of the attorney handling it – he finally ended up being disbarred, but that’s another story.  Well, this thing dragged out and out.  Soon we had far more than four members.  Now, the problem was, the water had been shut off several months before I had arrived.  I couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than a hot, dusty church with no water – no water, in the middle of a scorching summer out in the Mojave Desert! 

We absolutely had to get the water turned on again.  Absolutely!

The words of Isaiah are a thirsting for restoration, for a return to the gates of Zion.  That all which is amiss be restored.

Yes, Lord, let the dry land be glad!  Let the desert rejoice and blossom!

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…the lame shall leap like a dear…for waters shall break forth in the wilderness.”  Lord, let it be!  Yes, turn on your mighty water spigot.

A highway shall be prepared, straight to glory – “It shall be called the Holy Way…no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing…”  A straight shot glory attack!  That’s what Isaiah’s about.

This vision of return from Babylonian Captivity is one of restoration.  All the folks dancing and singing on that Glory Road home.

In the holy city of Jerusalem God’s people shall live in solidarity with one another.  Open the gates of justice for this homecoming.  “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  The lion shall lie down with the lamb – though the lamb might not get much sleep.

For much of our history, for a lot of our people, America has been a barren desert of sorrow and sighing – as they languished under the slave master’s lash.  Beginning in 1619, we robbed an entire people of any future.  Right from our inception as a nation.  Right through the Jim Crow laws of exclusion. And hooded night riders.

Our present economic system locks the vast majority of our people out of any decent livelihood.  It’s a barren system that saddles young people with tens of thousands of dollars of college debt, especially those from black and brown communities – and those from rural poverty.  And one wonders why our young people have given up on capitalism?  To them it looks to be a parched future of little hope.  No righteousness to be found here.

It’s a ruinous and barren political system that strips workers of the right to any meaning of union representation, as did President Joe Biden and his Democratic congress to our railway workers this past week.

These railroad companies are making billions – the highest profits ever – and their CEOs are among the highest paid in the nation, raking in millions every year – and we can’t even afford a measly seven days of paid sick leave!?  Shame on you!  Get real, people.  Time for our inner Mary.

And, for the most part, the church remains silent in the face of such massive inequality, such gross injustice.

Definitely — time for our Inner Mary!

Not that statue in some churches, not that picture on parish walls of a demure, bashful servile girl in pastel blues.  As harmless as a Cocker Spaniel.  No!  Not that Mary.

I’m talking about a Mary that looks more like Harriet Tubman, Conductor to Freedom on the Underground Railroad — more like Rosie the Riveter — more like Katy Porter with her white board — more like Rosa Parks firmly planted in that bus seat – more like Octavia Butler with visions of our future swirling in her brain — more like Toni Morrison with pen on fire writing Beloved — more like fearless, undaunted Mother Carrie Oval, my predecessor out there in that barren desert of Randsburg and Inyokern who wouldn’t give up in the face of a sexist boycott of her first sermon – all those women of steel and moral purpose who kept on coming.  Women who persist!  Yeah, throw in Elizabeth Warren, Liz Cheney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  And Mother Jones, to boot!

When Mary is confronted by the Angel Gabriel and given the terrifying news that she will become pregnant – pregnant without her consent, pregnant like so many young girls in Ukraine who are the rape victims of Russian invaders, pregnant like so many young girls in families of poverty with no access to birth control — Mary does not acquiesce quietly.  No demure, little, nice, quiet girl she.

She, as Mike Kinman once put it in a most memorable sermon – Mary takes one step back and says to that intrusive messenger, “If this is the way it’s gonna be…Just hold my beer and watch this!’”

With that, she cuts loose with the Magnificat – she belts out one of the most radical proclamations of social justice in all of scripture.  If I’m part of this plan that I did not ask for, then let ‘er rip.  You’re going to be absolutely astounded at what God’s going to accomplish through this child to be born of my womb.

Yes, indeed.  Hold my beer and watch this!

“His mercy is on them that fear him

      throughout all generations.

“He hath showed strength with his arm;
      he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”

Yeah, I’m talkin’ to, big shots.

“He hath put down the mighty from their seat;

       And hath exalted the humble and meek.”

“He hath filled the hungry with good things,
       and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

You fat cats, your shelf life has expired.  There’s a new sheriff in town.

Privilege and preference, all turned upside down – this is the Lord’s doing and marvelous it is in God’s holy sight.

It’s time this Advent we channel this inner Mary – channel her righteous indignation at injustice, channel her persistence, channel her loyalty to this holy work of God.  Channel her loyalty to the end, even to the foot of that tree of shame and sorrow.

In our Advent study by Jill Duffield, Advent in Plain Sight, uses the metaphor of a gate to open the mysteries and promise of this season.  Through the gate of Advent, we are beckoned to a world transformed.  We are invited to lives of new promise and opportunity.

This last week I had the opportunity to present to the chair of the board of Housing Claremont the Helen Meyers Achievement Award, a recognition of persons and organizations that have made our town of Claremont a better place to live.  This group and their leader Ilsa Lund are channeling their Inner Mary.  Her song lives in them.

Housing Claremont, through its advocacy for permanent supportive housing for the indigent, mentally ill, the homeless, the addicted, is a gate through which we in our city can pass on God’s promise of full inclusion.

Claremont, like many suburban communities in Southern California, has a sordid history of exclusion.  Redlining and restrictive covenants in property deeds were part and parcel of a racist past designed to keep Black people out.  Actually, also Mexican-Americans, Chinese, Japanese – to keep anyone who was not “white bread” out of here.  We were a “sundown community.”  If you’re not white, you’d better be gone by sundown.  If you knew what’s good for you.

Housing Claremont and their chair, Ilsa Lund, has striven mightily to bring Claremont into conformance with our highest Constitutional ideals.  A rule of law and ethic where “All means All.”  Full stop.  End of Story.  Magnificat incarnate!

They have met a wall of opposition in their advocacy of Larkin Place, a development of supportive housing for the “least of these.”  Opposition comes right out of the same mentality that gave us that redlining and those restrictive covenants. 

Yes, the opponents say, we believe in housing for the homeless.  But house them elsewhere.  Yes, “Housing ends Homelessness.”  That’s true, and, by all means, help these people.  But help them someplace else.  Anyplace else, but NOT HERE!

There’s a wonderful spiritual, “Twelve Gates to the City.”  The righteousness of Mary’s Magnificat proclaims the gates open.  Open the gates of opportunity and inclusion, the gates of justice and righteousness to our unhoused neighbors living right here on the streets and in the vacant lots of our city.  Open the gates this Advent!

It has been said that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.  Too often the gates of full inclusion to our churches are shut tight to those we fear.  Pablum is served — not Mary’s Magnificat.  Open wide the Gates to God’s righteous Word this Advent.

Open wide the gate to economic fairness to our railroad employees.  Let go of grievance and privilege.  America is not a zero-sum game where winner takes all.  That’s not the vision.  Open the gates of opportunity this Advent.

Standing outside those gates are the same Three Strange Angels who visited Abraham and Sarah.  Admit them!  Standing at the gate of the soul of this nation is the angel who visited Mary – Admit, admit that Advent Messenger that justice be reborn and righteousness find a manger bed.

As with Mary, the tidings may terrify.  The future may look dark and foreboding.  Though we be uncertain as to what sort of message this might be — at the very gates of our hearts stands blessing. Admit the Holy Messenger.  Admit.

Let the waters of righteousness flow like a mighty stream that the deserts of frozen hearts and closed communities blossom.  And joy shall come to the wilderness.  All the angels in heaven shall gather in concert to proclaim, “JOY to the WORLD!”  — “And to the Fishes of the Deep Blue Sea!”    Oh, and by the way, we finally did get that water back on at that little outpost of the Jesus Movement out there in Randsburg.  Amen.

December 11, 2022, Advent 3
Gaudete Sunday

“Channeling Your Inner Mary”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; Canticle 3, BCP[1]; Matthew 11:2-11

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of the Episcopal Church, 1979.

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