Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Give Me that Old Time Religion

In the South, where I grew up, you sometimes heard the phrase, ‘Give me that Old Time Religion.’ Just give me that Old Time Religion. And what that meant was, “I want Church to be like it used to be. Simple, comforting, full of stability.” In fact, there’s an old spiritual that captures this sentiment perfectly: “Give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me. Makes me love everybody, it’s good enough for me…It can take us all to heaven, it’s good enough for me. Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” But, to quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Because if we really want that ‘Old Time Religion’…the faith from the time before it went astray, as some might say…the faith that really gets to the heart of what God wants for God’s children…the faith that most closely reflects God’s dream for humanity, then I think we are going to get more than we bargained for. What we get certainly isn’t going to be merely comforting or full of simple spiritual stability.  Because if that ‘Old Time Religion’ is something akin to what the Blessed Virgin Mary sang about in her Magnificat, then what we are going to get is nothing short of a revolution.

"He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever." These words are sharp.  They cut a wide swath into the comfortable fabric of first-century Israel’s society…a society that was dominated by Roman imperialism and religious sycophants feeding from the scraps of the very same Romans who oppressed their kindred.  Her words were like the loudest warning siren, putting them on notice that their time was up, and a new king was coming into town. Yet the power of these words, their significance, is lost when we see them only as a flowery response to the bustling bundle of joy in Mary’s womb.  Mary wasn’t simply saying, ‘Thanks, God’ on account of this miraculous conception.  She was prophesying what the birth of her child would mean for the world.  With great might and power, she was declaring that the world would be overturned by the child inside her…that the world could no longer operate in the ways it had before.  The scholar John T. Carroll says it this way: “Mary’s song praises a God who has launched a social revolution.  These are neither gentle nor tame words; the coming of John and Jesus enacts a divine reign that effects wholesale reversal of status and power in the world.” As I said before, if we want true ‘Old Time Religion,’ then we must recognize that the Advent of the Son of God meant the world would be shaken to the core, and a true revolution was coming to pass.

As I was spending time with this passage, I came upon some curiosities of history, one of which causes me a bit of ecclesiological shame.  Throughout history, people have recognized the revolutionary nature of this passage, and yet they responded not with exuberance, but with fear.  During the British rule of India, the Archbishop of Canterbury actually prohibited Anglican priests from reading the Magnificat in public, as it was too dangerous and might arouse the masses.  During the social revolution in 1980’s Guatemala, the Magnificat was banned from any public recitation.  Likewise, during a military junta in Argentina, the Magnificat was prohibited from being read or posted publicly.  All of these people recognized the stunningly empowering and politically threatening nature of Mary’s song.  This is a song that proclaims, “At the coming of the Son of God, nothing can remain the same.” For God Incarnate did not come merely to find his place in the world as it were.  He came to overthrow it, and to create something new.

During the time of the Third Reich, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”  Mary responded to the Advent of her Son by taking a hard look at the world around her, and boldly declaring that something needed to change.  That something was going to happen…that God’s dream was going to break into this world in a way that would not leave it unchanged.  And as we have sung this song together this morning, we are given the chance to be like the Blessed Virgin Mary, unafraid to declare that nothing can remain the same with the in-breaking of the Son of God into this world.  We are called to summon the same strength, courage, and fearless gall that Mary summoned when she declared that God was doing a revolutionary work in this world.  As we move ever closer to the yearly remembrance of the birth of the Son of God, we are challenged to be bolder in our proclamation and more pointed in our actions, that the revolutionary nature of the Incarnation would not be lost on the world, least of all on those of us who claim him as our Lord.  Are you up for the challenge?

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on December 11, 2016.  The texts were Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, and Canticle 15 from the Book of Common Prayer.

No comments:

Post a Comment