clutter and clarity.

I got to preach this week at church and here is the text of my sermon. Our Advent series was “uncluttered” and I took the opportunity to talk about the good kind of clutter.


I have been listening to a lot of the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording over the past few months. If you aren’t familiar with Hamilton, it’s a Broadway show currently playing in New York about the life and death of founding father Alexander Hamilton told through a variety of musical styles including rap and hip hop and featuring a diverse cast. I know it doesn’t sound exciting when I say it like that, and yet it is an amazing accomplishment of storytelling, history, and music. In what Mike considers a questionable parenting decision, I have been letting Atticus listen to some of the songs (with some strategic turning down of the volume at certain words). Atticus’s favorite songs include a rap by Marquis de Lafayette and a showstopper by Aaron Burr that talks about the Compromise of 1790. Actually, Mike might object to the extreme nerdery even more than the language. He’s probably right.

Near the end of the first act, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (who the musical deems “the fool who shot him”) sing about the births of their children and how they want to create a better world for them, how they have literally helped form a new nation in an attempt to make things better for these newborns. Hamilton sings, “There is so much more inside me now,” and while his actions in the rest of the show do not always indicate that he remembers this newfound lesson, I have found that line resonates deeply with me. As a mother, I understand the idea that the love of a child can help you to discover new depths, but I also see how it can change the game dramatically.

In today’s scripture, which Sarah Ramsey sang so beautifully last week, Mary also sings because of her child. The angel has appeared to Mary and given her the astonishing news of her pregnancy. Then she travels to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, where she is called “blessed among women.” She responds by singing. In her song, she speaks prophetically of a world in which things are different than we are used to: the proud are scattered, the humble are exalted, the hungry are filled. Growing up, when we spoke about Mary, we tended to focus on Elizabeth’s words, “Blessed are you among women.” And yet here, in a surprising twist, before we even get to know Jesus, here is Mary giving us a preview of his message.

One of our family’s Advent traditions is to wrap different Christmas books for Atticus to open each night. I have noticed that in these books Mary is portrayed as meek, sitting to the side and watching the baby. But the Mary in this passage is empowered. You could say that the presence of Jesus has empowered her, and that is surely true, but I think she is also speaking here specifically in her new role as a mother. She has been a mother for just a few verses but already she is thinking about the changes that her child will bring about in the world, the deeper meaning of his existence. It is both Mary’s love for her child and her love and trust of God that allow her to see the possibilities of the kingdom of God. In her song, Mary embodies the famous quote by Cornel West: Justice is what love looks like in public.

I have reflected deeply on this passage in recent years because I personally felt a surprising shift in the way that I approached the world when I became a mother. I was less concerned with how others would see me and more concerned with setting an appropriate example for my child. His presence has led me to speak out where, in the past, I would have worried about offending or about being considered improper. I have written to my public officials about refugees and public schools, I implored friends and family to vote against Amendment One, and I have taken Atticus to Raleigh for Moral Mondays. Like Mary, I believe that motherhood has given me a voice. Like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and like Mary, all revolutionaries in their own right, I have thought about the world that our children are inheriting and what I am going to do about it.

The driving force behind these actions is not simply parenthood, but love. Opening your heart to another person is a risk, and we all know the risks that Mary took to bring Jesus into the world. Jennifer spoke last week about the physical risk of childbirth for both women and children. Mary was also at the mercy of Joseph’s good character as she risked her reputation and place in the community in order to bring Jesus into the world.

Poet Luci Shaw speaks of faith as “a certain widening of the imagination” and I would agree with her in many ways. I think that seeing life through the lens of faith and belief can cause us to see things out of the ordinary, to expand our view and to help us see with God’s vision. I would add to her quote that love can do the same. Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord, Alexander Hamilton says there is more inside of him. Love and faith can and should be expansive forces in our lives.

This Advent, we have focused on the theme of clutter. We could say that Mary had a clutter-free birth because there was no birth plan or playlist or community of women to help her. In other ways, the story appears to have a lot of clutter, what with all the animals, hay, people traipsing in and out, and that little boy who shows up and plays the drum really loudly. (Can you imagine?) I think about her often, how Jesus came to promote this upside-down kingdom and how the first step was being born to a pregnant teenager in a cave or a stable. But the story of Mary is first and foremost a story of love, both Mary’s love of God and her love of her new baby. The love she experiences complicates her life but it also gives her life new purpose and meaning that she could never have imagined.

It would be appropriate to also see Mary as an important force who shaped Jesus’ life, who fed and bathed him, who comforted him when he fell down, who rocked him to sleep, perhaps with songs like this one. Her prophetic vision for the world surely informed his message and her influence should not be discounted. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says, “No wonder Jesus was a radical. His mother sang him protest songs for lullabies.”

I am unqualified to speak on the topic of clutter. On the best of days, I am a person with a messy desk. On other days, I am the person making rules that Atticus can’t bring any more sticks and leaves and rocks into the house. Add Christmas with an almost five-year-old, sprinkle in the fact that Atticus’s birthday next week, and basically our house looks as if the toy section exploded (and also threw in some sticks for good measure). Just this morning, we had a frantic search for missing Legos!

In our house, we return almost daily to the question of how much in our lives has to change and how much should stay the same. The obvious examples since Atticus was born have to do with the physical, the train tracks that are residing in the sun room and the cars strewn about the floor of the extra bedroom. The internal examples have had to do with recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton did, that there is more inside of us now.

We do things now that I would never have anticipated, planning activities that complicate our lives but that offer our child a chance to learn and grow. We answer difficult questions about God and faith and injustice and Santa with honesty and humility and a lot of prayer because we do not want to screw it up too badly. To return to the idea of clutter, this is the kind of clutter that resonates most deeply with me now, the clutter of love. Not just the raggedy way that my house looks now, not even primarily that. It’s my heart I’m thinking of, the way that it is more full of love and concern for the world now that Atticus has come into our lives. Let me stand up for this kind of clutter in our lives: Living simply has its benefits but there is something to be said as well for the beauty of a life overflowing with compassion. My heart is more raggedy and cluttered, a little bruised at times, but with that comes a little bit of magic. Like the tents in Harry Potter, or the trunk of Mr. Weasley’s car, our hearts can hold more than it appears without being too full. I’m not a Doctor Who fan, but I believe there is something also about the TARDIS being bigger on the inside, and I thought I should add that here to see if anyone is still paying attention.

Mary’s call to embodied love and justice is for all of us, and people in this congregation have helped teach me that exact thing. Barry Shoemaker mentored Mike as he began to take steps to reinvent himself and imagine what kind of life he might be able to have, as well as teaching him how to arrange furniture. Ginny Olson has let me cry on her shoulder more times than I could really say. I have been inspired by the work of our activists and our truth-tellers and our educators (an important form of justice). I have been slow to learn this lesson, but they are still modeling for me how to open my heart, both to others and to the pain of the world. I would not have been able to show up for a friend’s cancer diagnosis or known how important it is to attend a funeral if you had not done those things for me.

Additionally, there are a lot of people here who have pitched in to help us raise Atticus who aren’t his parents, many who are not parents at all. One in particular that stands out to me was our former member, Scott Smith, who has since moved to Texas. Out of nowhere, Scott presented us with gifts for Atticus and after watching me wrangle Atticus during a particularly rowdy Christmas Eve service, Scott said, “I just love watching him at church.” I’m glad one of us does. Scott’s incredible grace and openness caused me to reconsider what it means to parent in church, and to trust in the welcome for all of God’s children, even the ones who run and play with tractors during the service. Church members have given gifts and food, have babysat and taught Sunday School classes, and have offered smiles instead of judgment to some of our child’s exuberance, none of which were particularly convenient for the people involved. These contributions give our children more than we could give them individually, and they also expand my own view of what is possible in the world.

Offering ourselves to each other, to our children, and in service to the community complicates our lives unquestionably but it also offers clarity and sense of purpose that can change us.

At the end of Hamilton, just before Alexander (spoiler alert) is killed by Aaron Burr, he reflects upon his life and says, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.” Mary’s song, too, is unfinished: Here in Greensboro there are hungry who are not being filled and all you have to do is turn on the news to see the proud continuing to be exalted. This should not lead us to despair, but to ask how we can answer God’s calling as sung by Mary: where are we extending mercy, showing humility, and using our status to level the playing field?

The mother love of God is embodied in these words of Mary, and whether you have children or not, as a child of God this is the work that God is calling us to. The work of justice and the work of service. The work of her son Jesus, and his upside-down kingdom. There was only one Mary, and yet all of us have the chance to catch her vision.

We see that vision carried on today throughout the world, in women like Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, who founded the Black Lives Matter movement. We see it in Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton professor who was suspended for demonstrating solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by wearing a head scarf and being “in conflict” with Wheaton’s statement of faith. We see it in young women like Malala who refuse to stop going to school. And we see it in small acts of love here in Greensboro: kind words sent to the Islamic Center and firm rebukes sent to Liberty University. Casseroles and hand-me-downs for new babies. Serving at GUM. Going with our children to camp. Each inconvenient step outside yourself is a chance to embody Mary’s prophetic words, for how does a prophecy come to be unless we ourselves make it happen? Like Mary, we have the opportunity to birth the needed change into the world.

What happened after Mary complicated her life and her heart by accepting the words of the angel? We do not hear a lot of her in the gospels after the birth of Jesus. This is her big scene, and all we can do is guess at what she was thinking and feeling as she watched Jesus grow and teach. We do know that she was present for her son’s first miracle – in fact, she was the driving force and faith behind it. She was present for his death and we see her in the book of Acts, present also at the very beginning of the church. That says to me that she continued to believe in her own prophetic words and embrace the work of love – loving her own son through difficult times and believing in the community of his followers. Her actions are not those of someone who is uncluttering her heart or forgoing the tangle of relationships, but instead they are of someone who is open to participating in the work of God.

We are here in the pause between Christmas and the New Year, a perfect time to reflect on the messy inconvenient power of love. How will you risk opening your heart this year? How will you, like Mary, take steps to see Jesus’ kingdom here on earth? How will you let the clutter of love offer you new clarity and purpose? Blessed is Mary among women. Blessed are you when you take seriously her words, when you live out her song of love and revolution.

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