Scriptures for this Sunday are Here
A year and a day ago, Scarlett Lewis sat in a firehouse in Newtown, Connecticut, waiting to hear news of her son, Jesse. She watched as one by one, parents received the news that their first-grade children had died, and then she watched as a sheriff’s deputy approached her, knelt down in front of her, and gently gave her the news that Jesse would never be coming home again. She learned what the other first-graders had told the police: that in a classroom where 10 first-graders were hiding, when the shooter walked in and paused to reload, Jesse stood and shouted “Run!” to all the others. They did run, and escaped, but Jesse didn’t – at 6 years old, he gave his life for nine other first-graders.
Devastated, she and her older son went to her parents’ house and stayed for several weeks, not sure they could face going home to a house without Jesse. But finally, they decided to face it and went home, and when she went into her kitchen, she looked at the chalkboard the family used to write messages to each other. And there she saw Jesse’s last message to her: misspelled in a first-grader’s way, but unmistakably his crooked handwriting, three words he had recently learned: Nurturing Healing Love.
From that moment, she decided that she would take those words as a mantra. She decided that she would not let her grief drive her to despair. She decided that she would let the meaning of Jesse’s life, and death, be his last words to her: Nurturing Healing Love. That is the title of her book, in which she tells the story of the months that followed Jesse’s death, and how her own choice of how she would look at her son’s life and death inspired others to look at their own lives differently too. It is a story of courage in the face of unimaginable devastation, a story of beginning to heal after a disaster that very few people could heal from. And because it shows how she was able to choose how to see Jesse’s life and death, it is a story of how our own minds in a way create the reality we live in.
In fact, this is the job of a prophet – not to foretell the future – the prophet in Bible is the person who sees a reality that not many others can see, and therefore helps create it. The prophet is a person who can see God’s will coming to life before it happens, whose mind, understanding God’s desires, can actually speak that reality and help make it come true. The prophet looks at ordinary prosaic life and sees where God is working – sees an underlying reality that others don’t see, by the power of inspiration and imagination. And by imagining this reality, the activity of God that underlies everything that exists, and describing it to others, the prophet helps make it real. It becomes an outer, visible reality and not just an imagined one – God’s reality.
In our scriptures today, we hear of two prophets: Mary and John. Mary sings the song we hear in place of our psalm today – the Magnificat, named after the Latin for its first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary has stood in the presence of an angel, she has heard that nothing will be impossible with God, she has discovered that she is pregnant, and she has come to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant. Seeing Elizabeth, Mary breaks into song, not a characteristic song for an uneducated peasant girl: Mary turns into a prophet who can see God’s reality. She has been told that she will bear a son who is the Son of God. And she understands not only this fact, but what it means – she describes a vision of God’s hope for the world, singing in the past tense as though it has already happened. She sings of the greatness of the Lord, she sings of God who brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, she sings that the hungry will be filled and the rich sent away empty.
We who are skeptical may believe that this is religious romanticism. But we should not underestimate the power of the religious imagination. It was a modern-day prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, who was able to imagine and describe a nation in which his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And by imagining it, and describing it in a way that other people could imagine it too, he helped make it a reality. That’s what the prophetic imagination can do – help God describe and therefore create a new reality.
But what if the converse is true? If you can’t imagine it, then it is not reality? What happens if you can’t imagine a reality that runs under the surface of all things? What happens if you believe that the mundane everyday world is all that exists or can exist? Maybe you can’t see a deeper reality even if it’s there.
Some reporters at the Washington Post decided to test this question in 2007. (See the Pulitzer Prize-winning article by Gene Weingarten about this experiment here.) They set up a hidden camera in a subway station in Washington DC. A young man in jeans, Washington Nationals baseball cap and T-shirt walked into the station, set down a violin case, took out a violin, put a few dollars and coins in the case to seed the pot, and began to play. For next 43 minutes, he played 6 classical pieces as 1,097 people passed by. He played some very difficult, soaringly beautiful classical pieces, and he played the best-known religious song in the world – Schubert’s Ave Maria.
The reporter wrote later, “The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”
What the commuters didn’t know was that the young man was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days before he had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets at $100 apiece.
During the 43 minutes he played in the subway station, out of 1,097 people who passed by, 7 people stopped to listen for a while; a few put in money; only one person actually recognized him; his take for the day was $32.17. Many people interviewed outside the subway station didn’t even remember that there had been a musician there.
From the Post article: “The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.” Interestingly, every single child who walked by stopped, pulled parent toward the violinist, wanted to listen, and every single parent hurried their child away.
The Post’s question was this: “His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” The answer, apparently, was no. Or maybe it was just the setting – we expect to hear beauty in symphony hall. In a subway station, we can’t imagine it – so we just don’t hear it.
Maybe this was John the Baptist’s problem in the gospel today – what he imagined the Messiah to be – wrath, fire, separating wheat from chaff, awe-inspiring displays of God’s power – isn’t what Jesus is doing – so he sends a message to ask: are you the one to come, or is there another?
Jesus sends a message back to his cousin inviting him to imagine a different reality: a reality that the prophets Isaiah and Mary had described. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the poor have good news brought to them. Imagine, Jesus says, that this is how God works – not by setting the world on fire, but by bringing new life and healing to the poor and suffering, as Mary sang. Imagine that God’s kingdom could become a reality on earth in a whole new way than John had imagined – a way that comes quietly, like a baby in a manger, to the least and the lowest, without displays of power, but with humility. With nurturing, healing, love that invites the world to join in.
We don’t know whether John was convinced – Matthew doesn’t tell us – but we know that this was exactly how Jesus continued his ministry, in a way that wasn’t obvious. It takes God’s imagination to understand that what Jesus was bringing was God’s kingdom. Jesus’ kind of ministry was so unimaginable to most people as a picture of God’s kingdom that they ended up putting him to death. Most people missed it altogether.
Could this be true of us too? Could God be in action all around us and we can’t see it because we can’t imagine it? Could the Holy Spirit be weaving beautiful music all around us, the most beautiful music we’ve ever heard, the music of the Kingdom, the music Mary heard, that caused her to burst into song– and we can’t hear it because we can’t imagine it? Maybe we can only imagine Jesus at work in church, and can’t see or hear what he’s doing the other 167 hours a week of our lives – and because we can’t see it or hear it, we can’t live in the reality of God’s kingdom, we can’t be like Mary the prophet, or even like Scarlett Lewis, the grieving mother in Newtown.
Maybe we’re the blind and the deaf who need to be healed, we’re the lame who need to be taught how to walk, we’re the dead who need to learn to live. Maybe we’re the poor who need to hear good news, or we’re the rich who need to join God in God’s mission, knowing that it is our mission too.
So let’s ask God to open our eyes, ears, imaginations. Let’s ask Jesus to show us: where is God working in our lives? What is God calling us to do with the other 167 hours a week? How are our lives holy and blessed, how do they answer God’s call? How are we living in a way that answers the call of Mary’s Song, and sings along?