Sermon preached December 20, 2015
Texts: Luke 1:39-55
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Tuff Enough” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcXT1clXc04
Bob Dylan and the Band, “Tough Mama” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4MOlRl4NZQ
I thought maybe you all needed a little break from Christmas music J. The first song is a one-hit wonder from the 1980s – “Tuff Enough” by The Fabulous Thunderbirds. The second song is done by Bob Dylan and the Band from an album called “Planet Waves.” I initially got that album because of a mistake my sister made. My sister was looking for a song called “Wedding Song” and this Bob Dylan album has “Wedding Song” on it, but she was looking for that really melodic Paul Stookey song – you know, “He is now to be among you, at the calling of your hearts.” Bob Dylan’s “Wedding Song is quite different, and my sister never really developed a taste for Dylan’s music. As I was discovering his music and finding it intriguing, she gladly sold me this album for a pittance.
“Tuff Enough,” “Tough Mama,” – “Tough,” not exactly a seasonal word, is it, except maybe for those who are culinarily challenged. “My these mashed potatoes are tough!”
Mary is at the center of today’s Scripture reading, and in the history of the church Mary, the mother of Jesus has been called many things, but tough mama is not one of them, though I think anyone who has ever been a mother knows that you have to have a certain toughness about you. Mary may never have been called a tough mama, but the language she uses in her song is pretty tough.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…. The Mighty One has done great things…. God has shown great strength… scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Tough stuff.
This is the language of tough love. Now I have some qualms about that phrase. Sometimes in the way it gets used it is really about being tough rather than about being loving. When there is punishment and the person doing the punishing says, “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you,” we have a right to be skeptical. Tough love has been used to justify just not really caring.
Yet even with those concerns, I think tough love is an important concept. Sometimes love requires that we let people know limits and boundaries. Love can require letting people experience the consequences of their actions. Love can mean speaking difficult truths.
I will never forget an experience I had in a ministry learning setting when I was in seminary. The small ministry placement group I was in worked at Abbot-Northwestern Hospital, and one time we were allowed to witness part of an alcohol treatment session. The session we were given permission to witness was a family session. Family members had come to the treatment center to meet with the woman who was there for her alcohol abuse. I am guessing the woman was in her early to mid-sixties, and she had adult children there to speak about some of their experiences of her alcohol abuse. I particularly remember an adult daughter talking about holiday meals, as her mother was intoxicated trying to get dinner ready and the mess and havoc that was created. The daughter was courageous, even as she was crying. This was an act of tough love. This woman wanted her mother to know how destructive alcohol was in her life so she would make the effort to change. What saddened me was that this mother seemed untouched by her daughters words. She did not remember any of this and kind of blew it off. Tough love was needed, but tough love is not magic.
As parents, we know that we sometimes need to exercise tough love. I think it has less to do with any kind of punishment than with sometimes allowing our children to experience the force of the consequences of their actions when they have made poor choices. Such love is often tough on both parents and children. It can mean having your child apologize and admit they were wrong. It can mean having your child help repair something they may have broken. As parents, tough love may also mean that we apologize to our children when we have been wrong or overreacted. That can be tough, too.
Tough love has its place. Mary’s song is a song of tough love to the human community. The words speak of the love of God which seems to recognize those on the margins, which is concerned for the lowly and the hungry. It is a song which, in love, seems to say that when we only pay attention to the proud, the powerful and the well-off, we are missing the boat as a human community. Love asks of us to do better. Mary’s song is about accountability for the way the world is organized, and in a democracy, we all have some part to play in how our society is organized.
I also want to suggest that there is another meaning to tough love that is even more important than tough love as accountability, as recognizing limits and boundaries, as living with consequences. This kind of tough love is even more deeply woven into the Advent season. This is the idea of love as tough because it is tenacious, because it never gives up.
God’s love is that kind of tough love. God’s love keeps coming to us again and again and again. When we gather on Christmas Eve, that’s what we celebrate, the love of God which keeps arriving, and often in the most unlikely places – in the backwaters of Nazareth to a young unmarried woman, someone considered lowly. I want to say a lot more about that on Thursday.
Tough love is tenacious love. It is the kind of love to which we are called. As followers of this Jesus born of Mary we are to be tenacious in seeking a newer world, a world not just for the powerful and proud and well-off, but a world for all of us. As followers of this Jesus born of Mary we are to be tenacious in our pursuit of hope, peace, joy and love. These Advent candles are more than an opportunity to get more people involved in December worship. They represent our calling, a calling to a tough, tenacious love.
God wants to grace us with tough love, with hearts strong in love, with souls strong in spirit. Mary is a wonderful example of such tough love. She was willing to be tough in giving birth to one whose very nature and name would be love. She was lowly, but tough enough to believe that God still cared, that God wanted to touch the world in a remarkable way through her.
Tough love as tenacious love. I don’t know how I discovered the poetry of William Stafford. I do know that it was not because my sister mistakenly bought a William Stafford book. William Stafford has a poem that speaks to me powerfully about tough love. The poem is called “A Ritual To Read To Each Other” and I want to share just a part of it.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
The darkness around us is deep. Mary looked at a world enthralled with the powerful, the proud, the well-off. She believed tenaciously that God was not yet done with this world, that God, in love had more to do and she could help give birth to it. Tough love, tenacious love.
Tough love, a tenacious love which keeps on loving. It is the kind of love with which God loves us. It is the kind of love to which God calls us in Jesus. Ain’t we tuff enough? Fabulously so. Amen.