I have the privilege of giving the sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, RI this morning for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Here’s what I’ll say (and sing).
Many of you folks in the pews today are old enough to understand what I mean when I say that I grew up with the Beatles. They were an important part of the soundtrack of my youth. Now, “Alexa, play the Beatles!” is my most common command if I’m looking for music when home alone while reading, preparing a lecture, grading, or just being. I also have a 10-hour “Best of the Beatles” Spotify playlist, so John, Paul, George, and Ringo go with me everywhere.
It is actually somewhat surprising that I even was aware of the Beatles growing up. The real soundtrack of my youth was classical music connected to my piano training. I missed the Beatles’ American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show because I was in church on Sunday evening with my family every week. The authorities in charge of the conservative Baptist world in which I was raised were highly suspicious of “rock and roll,” and particularly suspicious of these long-haired Brits over whom my whole generation seemed to be swooning.
It didn’t help that in a 1968 interview with London’s Evening Standard newspaper, John Lennon said that
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
Those obviously were fighting words in my circles, not a “Ticket to Ride,” but a ticket straight to hell. Some of the folks in my church’s youth group, including the person whom I would marry eight years later, burned their Beatles albums in protest. But the Beatles were in the atmosphere, and I breathed them in—I just kept quiet about it.
Then on my 14th birthday, 3/6/70, the Beatles released their single “Let it Be.” I was a freshman in high school. Despite a great deal of competition, “Let it Be” immediately became—and still remains—my favorite Beatles song. With my sincere apologies to Paul McCartney and Beatles fans everyone, let me remind you how it goes. Please feel free to join me.
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom—Let it Be.
And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me,
Speaking words of wisdom—Let it Be.
I loved the simplicity of it, the solo piano introduction—all of it. But those lyrics! I was shocked! My extended family and friends were shocked. Had the Beatles become Christians? Had they become Catholics, for God’s sake? Because who else could Mother Mary be but . . . the Virgin Mary?
Fast forward five decades. Last year during the depths of the pandemic, I heard the true origin story of “Let It Be” for the first time. It was part of an episode of “Carpool Karaoke,” a recurring segment on The Late Late Show with James Corden, in which host Corden invites famous musical guests to sing along to their songs with him while travelling in a car driven by Corden. The most viewed episode of “Carpool Karoke” is one of the most entertaining and joyful 20 minutes of video I have ever seen. Corden’s guest is Paul McCartney; they drive the streets of Liverpool past some of the sites of McCartney’s youth, ending up with an impromptu set at a random bar.
About halfway through the video, now 79-year-old Paul McCartney tells Corden an intense story.
I had a dream in the 60s when things were really crazy where my mom—her name was Mary—who had died, came to me in a dream and was reassuring me: “It’s going to be okay—just let it be.” I felt so relieved and thought, “Yeah, it’s going to be great!” She gave me the positive word. So, I woke up and thought “She said Let it Be—that’s kind of good,” and I wrote the song “Let it Be.”
Harden (tears in his eyes): “That’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever heard.”
So, Mother Mary in the song is Paul McCartney’s mother—Mary! It IS a beautiful story. But I’ve got a better one. We’ve got a better one.
Jeanne and I recently finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ last book, Wholehearted Faith, published just a couple of months ago. Rachel Held Evans, one of the brightest and most iconoclastic voices in Christian spirituality over the past decade or so, tragically died at the age of 38 in 2019 with her latest book half finished. The Amazon.com blurb for the new book says that “With the help of her close friend and author Jeff Chu, that work-in-progress has been woven together with some of her other unpublished writings into a rich collection of essays that ask candid questions about the stories we’ve been told—and the stories we tell—about our faith, our selves, and our world.” Jeanne and I highly recommend Wholehearted Faith—it would be a great basis for a several-meeting book club event.
Wholehearted Faith’s essays regularly engage with stories from the Bible, particularly those with women at the center. Hannah, Hagar, Evans’ namesake Rachel, Esther, Mary Magdalene . . . retelling these stories with centuries of mansplaining interpretations and patriarchal directives stripped away is one of Rachel Held Evans’ many gifts. Most memorable, for me at least, is when she puts our woman of the morning—Mary—front and center. Rachel Held Evans had a habit in her writing of repetition for emphasis, so effective that what follows is a couple of extended passages from Wholehearted Faith unedited. It’s okay to quote at length under certain circumstances. I often tell my students that when they steal someone else’s work, it’s called plagiarism. When a teacher does it, it’s called creative pedagogy. In her own words, then:
I am more aware than ever of the startling and profound reality that I am a Christian not because of anything I’ve done but because a teenage girl living in occupied Palestine at one of the most dangerous moments in history said yes.
- Yes to God
- Yes to a wholehearted call she could not possibly understand
- Yes to vulnerability in the face of societal judgment
- Yes to the considerable risk of pregnancy and childbirth
- Yes to clogged milk ducts and spit-up in her hair and hundreds of middle-of-the-night feedings
- Yes to scary fevers and learning as you go and all the first-century equivalents of bad advice from WebMD
- Yes to a vision for herself and her little boy of a mission that would bring down rulers and lift up the humble, that would turn away the rich and fill the hungry with good things, that would scatter the proud and gather the lowly
- Yes to a life that came with no guarantee of her safety or her son’s
I know that Christians are Easter people. We are supposed to favor the story of the resurrection, which reminds us that death is never the end of God’s story. Yet I have never found that story even half as compelling as the story of the Incarnation.
On the days and nights when I believe this story that we call Christianity, I cannot entirely make sense of the storyline: God trusted God’s very self, totally and completely and in full bodily form, to the care of a woman. God needed women for survival. Before Jesus fed us with the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, Jesus himself needed to be fed, by a woman. He needed a woman to say: “This is my body, given for you.”
Later in Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans reflects on Mary’s Magnificat:
In the Magnificat, Mary isn’t merely making a birth announcement. This prayer is definitely not the ancient Palestinian equivalent of a gender reveal party . . . Instead, Mary’s holy soliloquy seems breathtaking in its bravado: she declares the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other regime—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.”
Mary proclaims that God has chosen sides.
- It’s not with the powerful but with the humble.
- It’s not with the occupying force but with people who are occupied and oppressed, disregarded and disempowered.
- It’s not with vain narcissistic rulers but with an unwed, unbelieved teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing.
In her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman who will become a refugee, a member of a religious minority in a colonized land—names the reality of the coming Incarnation: God is with us. And if God is with us, who can be against us?
Sometimes I forget to summon Mary’s courageous spirit.
Sometimes I forget her acknowledgements not of what she is doing but of what God has already done.
Sometimes I forget that this remarkable woman prayed a prayer that didn’t make any requests. Instead, she simply called it like she saw it, proclaiming in ridiculously bold present tense that the great reversal had already arrived. Shouldn’t we echo such holy audacity?
Back to the Beatles and “Let It Be.” The second verse is my favorite.
And when the brokenhearted people living in the world agree,
There will be an answer—Let it Be.
For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see,
There will be an answer—Let it Be.
Yes, there will be an answer. There is an answer. Let It Be.