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Call and Response

The Reverend Krystal Leedy

December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-56

A reading from the Gospel of Luke

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.


In my preparations for the Christmas season, I decided to read a book about having conversations that matter. While the rest of you all are preparing your homes for acts of hospitality, I’m over in the corner, not helping, but reading a book called We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee, a radio personality on NPR. I’m sure my parents are so proud of their unhelpful child, but hey, you prepare for the coming of Christ in your way, and I’ll prepare in mine… and then fully take advantage of your preparation while you listen to me drone on and on about this book that I read while you stand there with your stained apron.

Okay, this book was fascinating. She talks to a professor of linguistics from MIT, and “he argues that humans probably developed language as we know it by combining the gestural language of other animals with the songs of birds.” I mean, birds! Now I understand that you just made a Christmas turkey, and you really don’t care about turkey songs. But, bird songs and gestures, like “a wave of greeting or pointing to show a direction—think of the dance a bee performs to relay the location of pollen-rich flowers. We can understand the meaning of one gesture, like pointing, that’s used in isolation, just like we understand the meaning of one word like ‘fire.’” Yes, I understand at this time that you feel it is appropriate to show me a particular gesture because I spent 6 hours reading this book instead of helping wrap presents, and because of this book I know that I can interpret that gesture and the words that it might insinuate. But you haven’t heard the part about the birdsong yet. “Birdsong can’t be picked apart. It’s the expression layer. The message is communicated holistically. In other words, you need to hear the song in its entirety to understand its meaning; it dissolves into nonsense if you try to separate it into individual pieces.” I know this is super interesting. Just what you want to hear as you are literally writing your to-do list. To-do lists aren’t exactly birdsongs, I hate to tell you, and your silence right now is speaking volumes. This is the expression of you ignoring me. That’s your birdsong today.

I know we have a lot on our minds with the preparation of the season, I truly do understand that, but I have to tell you my favorite quote from this section. Celeste Headlee writes that this theory of how humans developed language is her favorite “because it suggests that humans sang before they spoke.”

In my Advent preparations, I also went to an organ recital on Tuesday. I saw many familiar faces there, but I’ll be really honest with you, I don’t frequent many organ recitals. I didn’t know what I was going to hear. Eric Wall performed the work The Birth of Our Lord by Olivier Messiaen, and If you think that was the correct pronunciation of his name, it wasn’t.

It was a phenomenal feat to accomplish this piece, and I only know that because we moved the organ out so we could see his hands and feet moving, fast.

I was incredibly grateful for Eric’s explanation at the top of the piece where he talked about modes of limited transposition, and for those of us who have no idea what that means, he said it gave the music a foggy, dreamy sound. I was so grateful because I was foggy throughout that entire piece.

It was broken into sections with titles like “The Shpeherds” and “The Magi,” and I kept secretly hoping that each section was going to be like Peter and the Wolf, where a clarinet is a cat and an oboe is a duck. It wasn’t. I could only slightly see the wisemen inching toward the star. It wasn’t that literal.

One of my other organist friends, let’s be honest it was Keith, said that Messiaen may have had synesthesia, where he could literally hear in color. I do not hear in color, but I’m the one standing up here, so I’m very glad to be able to give you my review of the organ recital.

There was this one part during the section entitled, “Jesus Accepts Sorrow” where Eric played a part over and over again, and it sounded like this bum bum BUM. But there were other notes underneath and more color in the air that I couldn’t see the bum bum BUM, so it sounded like this in my head: does not resolve. Does not resolve.
If I counted right, he did that about 8 times. Does not resolve. Does not resolve.
But on like the 7th time, a miracle happened. The chord resolved. I cannot describe it in technical terms, I can only tell you that my shoulders relaxed and I couldn’t help but smile. The chord resolved. It’s almost as if you had to hear the section in its entirety before you understood. It was a glorious moment.
And then the 8th time it went right back to its same old tune: Does not resolve.

I’ll tell you about yet another Advent preparation and that was heading to the steps of the Capitol for Tuba Christmas, where brass players from all across Austin are invited to play Christmas carols. And even if a Christmas carol didn’t resolve, those tubas would find a way. Each one ended with a clear-cut ending. Each one was recognizable. They marched into my mind and marched out. I never noticed how many Christmas and Epiphany carols have a dialogue until this year. My child’s obsession with The Star Song, “We Three Kings” in our house has caused me to pay attention. “Heaven sings alleluia. Alleluia, the earth replies.” In Hark the Herald Angels Sing, “And the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strain” On this Day Earth Shall Ring offers: “On this day angels sing, with their song earth shall ring.” It Came Upon a Midnight Clear says “the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” And Joy to the Word: “while fields and floods, rocks hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.”

The earth replies to heaven’s song, brought to us by angels. And angels have been singing forever, and the angel’s songs tend to cause fear, which is why “Do not be afraid” usually accompanies, “Greetings!” And for millenia the songs of angels, the song of God, has required intermediaries, people who stand in the great gap between heaven and earth. People we call prophets.

I’ve often thought about prophets as God’s puppets, held onto strings by a God who would not lift God’s head, for fear that the audience may see the puppetmaster. Fading into the background, this God, to allow you to think for a moment that God’s wooden dolls might be real. God stares expressionless at the puppet, wearing the colors of curtains, taking light steps not to disturb the action, trying not to reveal Godself.
But we don’t believe in a puppetmaster God, and we do not believe that prophets are wooden dolls. They are the people, made of flesh, the ones we mention as those who remind us, who gesture to God while expressing the songs of winged creatures to the people here on earth.

We think of the prophets as people with beards who stand back to back with one another in Scripture. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah.
We hear their words in seasons like this one. We have required their words when we feel lost and disconnected. It’s not that we require judgement or correction because of individual sin. That’s not what prophets are for. It’s that the words of the prophets point the way home when we have lost our way. Heaven calls and we are caught in fog, and prophetic voices guide us home, but only for a moment.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to God’s descendants for ever.’
Mary is a prophet without a beard. As much as we want to relate this song to the song of Hannah of the book of Samuel, as much as we want Mary to be the piccolo in Peter and the Wolf, as much as we want for her to live into every ideal we have ever had about femininity, she stands arm and arm with John the Baptist, who knows a prophet when he meets one. Her words are foggy and dreamy, standing in the place where heaven and earth meet, not in a temple, not in a sanctuary, not even in a stable, but in conversation with a dear friend.

A dear friend that responds the way earth responds to heaven, for Elizabeth is the expression of earth recognizing where God just might show up in the world, and Mary responds with the words of heaven that were not even written by her own pen. Luke hands her the microphone of this good news, but she sings what people call a textual insertion, a hymn that the people of God wrote later on and gave her credit for. Because they knew she was the prophet that would sing this song the best, that the God-bearer would be the perfect candidate to remind us that every tyrant will be ripped from their throne, that every hungry belly will be filled, that proud people will be separated from communities they can destroy, that everyone who is lowly will be lifted up. And I know, I know, it sounds like a dream. It sounds mythical and unrealistic. It sounds like it does not resolve.

But we listened to the Messiaen. Many of us didn’t hear the colors, but it resolved the 7th time. And I have to think that it was the empathy of Messiaen himself that couldn’t leave us in the breach for so long. And if a prophetic voice like his wouldn’t leave us without resolution, then I can’t imagine a God who won’t hit a major chord when the sun sets tomorrow.

Light is coming into this world, people of God, and it’s going to expose some stuff. And even if it seems like the hardest thing we can do is embrace another person, that’s exactly where heaven and earth meet, that’s where we sing our birdsongs, and practice empathy. And become the body of Christ.

In our preparations, let us take an Elizabeth moment to respond to one another with blessed are you among all people and blessed is the Christ who lives in your heart. And why has this happened to me, that a beloved child of God would come to me? For as soon as I heard your greeting, my heart leapt for joy. And blessed are you for believing that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to you by the Lord.
Because when you hear the whole song in its entirety, when you hear the entire expression of humanity and of God in dialogue, it resolves, and we get to glimpse that. And we will echo back the joyous strain.
And for today, we hold those who stand in waiting for the world to be different, waiting for their situation right now to change, whose birdsong cannot resolve, and let’s stay with them for a moment until we need to return home. God hears our song, and echoes it back with empathy.

Blessed are you among people because you believed that there would be fulfillment of what is spoken to you by the Lord, and you can hold folks who aren’t so sure.

In the name of that one who never stops singing, who today seems distant, but remembers the way to be near, Immanuel, God with us, Amen.