Last year, this transferred Feast of St. Mary the Virgin fell on the second Sunday of August, at the end of a sacred tradition in our family: a camping trip on the southern Oregon Coast with six other families who all raised our kids together. I miraculously finished my sermon early in the week so as to have plenty of time to drive down to Portland, pack up our equally sacred VW camper, and drive another 3 or 4 hours to the campground we’ve been visiting on the second weekend of August for 20 years. There’s no cell service, no wifi, and no connection to the outside world. Saturday, I made the long drive up to Seattle fueled by the usual my usual spread of snacks, water, coffee, playlists, and podcasts. At one point when I was close to Seattle I turned on the news and heard reports of the events the previous day in Charlottesville, Virginia, the “Unite the Right” demonstration that resulted in the violent death of Heather Heyer and the injury of dozens of others.
That Sunday we did what we always do on this feast: we sang about Mary, we prayed, we listened to the same readings we heard this morning, we had a solemn procession at 11:15, and we rejoiced to be reunited with our choir on this one August Sunday. I preached on Mary and the Magnificat, as I always love to do, with a passing reference at the very end to how the week just past had been a frightening and disheartening one, kind of like the times in which Mary lived.
The next day, there was a lot of blogging and social-media posting about whether, if your church did not explicitly mention Charlottesville and denounce white supremacy, that meant that your church was, in fact, white supremacist. I disagree, although I believe we are far from alone among primarily white churches in being sometimes unconscious of the privileges granted to us simply by being white.
A comment about St. Paul’s on our Facebook page equated our “liturgical silence” on Charlottesville with complicity with white supremacy and systemic racism. To say this caught my eye is an understatement. I had a lot of reactions. One was to do more personal work in the arena of racial Justice, work that I thought I’d done ages ago.
I’m the descendent of Union soldiers and socially-progressive philanthropists. I came of age in the 1960s in Greenwich Village. My parents marched and got arrested demonstrating for peace and for civil rights. Twenty years ago, as a layperson I did a lot of teaching in my parish around anti-racism. I have a black son. All of that is supposed to be my “get-out-of-racial-injustice-free card.” Nonetheless, I realize that I benefit from that same history that I decry. I have work to do. I hope you’ll join me, although I’ll warn you: it’s hard work. I believe it’s the work set before white people of faith in America.
White people often ask Black writers where they find hope. This is a hard question for people of color in America to answer. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is very often asked where he finds hope, has this to say:
Slavery in this country was 250 years. That means that there were African Americans born in this country in 1750 [who,] if they looked backwards that their parents were slaves, their grandparents were slaves, their great grandparents were slaves. If they looked forward, their children would be slaves, grandchildren would be slaves, possibly their great grandchildren would be slaves. There was no real hope within their individual life span of ending enslavement, the most brutal form of degradation in this country’s history. There was nothing in their life that said this will end in my lifetime; I will see the end of this. And they struggled. They resisted.
Coates is speaking of slavery, but we could say it about economic injustice across the whole swath of American life, or about race in our country today, or about the criminal justice system. Austin Channing Brown calls this perspective “the shadow of hope”1 . But it is still hope.
When we promise, at baptism, to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being, we say: “I will, with God’s help.” Luckily, God gives us a lot of help, guideposts along the journey for untying the social and economic ties that bind us. We even have a patron saint for this work, a patron saint and a manifesto. Mary, whose assent to be the bearer of Our Lord was also her assent to take part in turning the world upside down. Mary, who said “be it unto me according to your word,” Mary, whose courage can be our courage, whose motherly love and protection can strengthen and nurture us for the work set before us. It is work she knows well.
Our manifesto begins like this: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. And continues, a little farther on: God has scattered the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. The hungry are filled with good things; the rich are sent away empty.
You may wonder, as I wonder: what do these words mean for the proud, the mighty, or the rich? What do these words mean for people who, even if they don’t consider themselves proud or powerful or wealthy, have more easy access to all those things, simply because of the color of their skin? What do these words mean for those who benefit, even unwittingly, from the centuries-old legacy of economic disparity and marginalization in our country? We are part of a system that keeps things as they are, that keeps the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer, a system that makes it possible for many well-meaning white folks like us to not get frightened and enraged by all the events that move across our newsfeed. What does the Magnificat say to us?
I believe that many people here at St. Paul’s have a deep longing to see a more diverse worshipping community under this roof. That may be in our future, but it is not where our work lies. I believe our work lies in self-examination and in working together, as people formed and renewed at St. Paul’s, as Christians of the Magnificat. I believe that it is possible for this formation and renewal, at St. Paul’s, as Christians of the Magnificat, to guide us in the daily slow hard work of dismantling unjust structures in the world where God has placed us.
Each of us, wherever we are, has a part in the transformation of the world that Mary promises, that Jesus embodies, and that our world desperately needs. What if we ask God to empty us of our guilt, our anxiety, our blindness, our sense of powerlessness and hopelessness? What if we ask God to fill us instead with good things, with conviction, open eyes and open hearts, determination, and courage, with holy food and drink to strengthen us for the justice journey?
Mary and the Magnificat are with us in the shadow of hope, with us for this long view. God has done and will do these things. The world will continue to be righted. It may not happen in our lifetimes (certainly not in mine) but that doesn’t mean that Mary doesn’t call us to this work, every day.
In one of our prayers for Mary we pray: Holy God, we magnify your Name for calling the Blessed Virgin Mary to bear your Word of hope to the poor, the hungry, and those who have no voice.
Let us find our voice.
1 Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, p. 180. (Convergent, 2018)