Holy One, maker of paths and teacher of songs, be with us here in this moment. Pause our hearts and open our spirits, that we might hear you even as we await your coming in love. Amen.
This morning as we mark the fourth Sunday in Advent, I would like for you to consider with me paths that have been laid for us, songs that have been given us. Paths that have been laid for us and songs that have been given to us.
I have to admit that when I heard the news about the omicron variant of Covid, it felt like a gut punch that knocked the wind out of me. And I sat immobilized for quite some time. It felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It came on the heels of the municipal elections in Minneapolis where so many of my hopes, dreams and energies seemed to get defeated, literally. And it came amidst the grief of Elly’s death and Linda’s… and the ongoing news of the extent of the attempted coup by white nationalists who have become mainstream… and the failure of our efforts to stop Line 3… and, and, and…
All of it stirs in me so many questions: What am I, as a Christian to do? How are we as a faith community to act? Where are we to find hope? In what are we to root ourselves?
Amidst all these questions and after we’d gotten the foot of snow last week, I did what often helps in times of overwhelm and immobilization, I focused on a task that had a beginning and an end. The Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh talks about the importance of washing dishes for his spiritual practice. It focuses the mind and spirit. My eco snowblower and our double lot served as my spiritual practice of focus. And after three rounds (our snow blower is pretty small and can’t handle too much, so I had to do it several times- a spiritual lesson in and of itself!), after three rounds of snow blowing, I felt like getting out and playing, so Maggie and I went snowshoeing with a friend to B’dote and Pike Island.
We got there and got our snow shoes on and set out fairly soon enough after the snowfall. At first, though, we were in a section that others had walked, snow shoed and skied already. But not too far into our hike, we made a turn for Pike Island and there were several places where I, in the lead of our little group, was making a path through the snow for the first time. And I was struck by how much effort and breath and concentration it took. I had to step higher and pay closer attention and use muscles I don’t normally use in order to lay down the path for Maggie and our friend who were behind me.
I was also struck by how much relief I felt when I merged back onto a path that had already been laid for me. I was able to relax and not breathe as hard. I was able to look up and notice the beauty of the forest when I didn’t have to create the path on which I was snowshoeing.
This morning, we have the absolute delight to read Mary’s Magnificat, Mary’s song. It is one of the most beloved passages in scripture and, I honestly never tire of reading it or singing any of the renditions of it, particularly Rory Cooney’s setting using the Irish folk tune of County Down. Every year when it comes around in the lectionary, I find new and powerful pieces that teach me. And this year, I was reminded of something I knew before but that spoke to me in deeper ways.
When Mary, a very young woman who is pregnant out of wedlock goes (maybe flees?) to her cousin Elizabeth’s home to consider how to respond to all that is happening in her occupied world, she sings a song of resistance, liberation and love. But it isn’t a new song. The words she sings are very, very similar to those that Hannah sang several centuries before her.
When faced with possibly dire circumstances (being pregnant before marriage could get Mary stoned to death in the religious law of her time), Mary grounds and roots herself in her ancestor, Hannah, and sings forth her own rendition of Hannah’s song of resistance, liberation and love.
Sixteen years ago, Maggie and I took a trip to Scotland with my parents. About half-way through our trip, we spent some time on the Isle of Skye at a place my parents and I had stayed when I was ten and went hiking in the same valley of my childhood trip, a place called Sligachan. Sligachan is gorgeous and almost completely tree-less and sits between two large mountains, the Cuillens. With my parents sitting with some tea and biscuits, Maggie and I set out on our hike.
At the beginning, we followed a small path that made its way up from the famous Sligachan bridge but which very quickly disappeared. While the bridge and the hotel next to it where my parents sat were in sight, this lack of path wasn’t too concerning, but as we wound our way up hill and the bridge and the hotel were blocked from our sight, we started to get nervous. It seemed hard to imagine but we were already getting disoriented. We stopped for a moment, checked our water bottles and snack collection and looked around to see where we might go next. It was in that moment of rising fear that was starting to immobilize us that we saw our first cairn, a pile of rocks that had been made by other hikers who laid a stone to mark the path. As we got close to that first cairn, another up ahead a bit came into our sight. And as we got close to that second one, a third came into sight, and, in this way, we were able to make our hike, enraptured by the beauty of this very wild place.
When I got home, I did some reading about cairns and discovered that they are pretty common in places that are above treeline, or treeless for other reasons, to mark the way forward. But cairns are also built to mark the graves of ancestors. (If any of you has been to Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s grave at Lakewood Cemetery, you will see stones on top of their headstone. In Jewish tradition, folx often will leave a small stone when they’ve visited a grave. And it strikes me that this is similar to leaving stones to guide the way of those who come after us on a hike because our ancestors often faced similar situations to what we are facing and their grave sites can be cairns which guide us in how we might live our lives.
My soul cries out with a joyful shout, that the God of my heart is great. And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight and my weakness you did not spurn. So, from east to west, shall my name be blessed, could the world be about to turn?
As we look into a world where Covid seems to keep going… as we learn more about the slow-moving coup that threatens our democracy… as we grieve those we love… as we mark the anniversary of Sandy Hook and grapple with Oxford and all the copycats…
I give thanks for Mary who knew to sing Hannah’s song. I give thanks for sacred scripture that acts as a cairn to guide and lead us. I give thanks that I am invited to not struggle in deep snow, but follow the path that our ancestors have laid.
We are Advent people, my friends. Even as we await the birth of love and justice and compassion into our world, we claim the reality that God already knows our plight and our weakness and will never spurn us. Even as we await Emmanuel, God with us, we claim, with our ancestors, that God is already with us, love and liberation and compassion have already been born and the world IS about to turn.
So, even as we might still be overwhelmed and fearful and immobilized, let us sing with our ancestor Mary and our ancestor Hannah and all the cloud of witnesses who have laid the path for us. Amen.