Sunday, December 6, 2009
Grace Reborn - Luke 1:39-45
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord.
In the first week of my first pastoral appointment, I was asked to make a hospital visit. Being the eager, young, go-getter I was, I jumped at the opportunity. The lady in the hospital was the elderly mother of one of our church members, and while they were not members of the congregation, they worshiped with us via television every week from their living room, and considered themselves part of our church family.
I walked into a hospital room where she was enjoying a sunny afternoon surrounded by her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law, her grandson, and her grandson’s fiancée. We visited for a little while – she was feeling pretty good and would probably go home the next day – and had been there long enough that she was definitely sick of hospital food. I got ready to leave, and offered to pray with them. Everyone stood, joined hands, and bowed their heads, and just as I said, “Gracious God,” her husband let one rip. This was no little squeaker, either. This was full-blown, sustained, gasto-intestinal assault. We’re all standing there, holding hands around the hospital bed, shaking uncontrollably with repressed laughter. I finished the prayer, and he looked across the circle at me and said, “Saved that one for ya, preacher.”
Of course, that brings me back to today’s text. This morning, we’re talking about visitation. Our Scripture today is about Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist being visited by her relative Mary, the mother of Jesus. From the earliest times, the people of God have visited one another as a way of expressing their love and concern for each other, and also as a way of taking the presence of God with them. And when Mary visited Elizabeth, that’s exactly what happened. May we pray.
By the time we meet up with Mary and Elizabeth in this morning’s reading, some extraordinary things have already happened to both of them. Elizabeth, already an old woman and believed to be barren, is with child. An angel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and given him the message that the son to be born to them will be a prophet, one who will speak for God.
Now, it seems that Mary is also pregnant. She was young, perhaps 12 or 13, and she was unmarried. An angel had visited her and given this extraordinary news: the one who would be born would be the Son of God.
Both women were carrying very special babies, but both women would also face ridicule and social isolation. Can’t you just hear the gossip now? “Hey, did you hear that Elizabeth is pregnant?” “Who, the old priest’s wife?” “Isn’t she a little OLD to have a baby?” Or, “Hey, did you hear that Mary is pregnant?” “Who, the young girl engaged to the carpenter?” “I know – shameful, really.”
Both women were greeted as highly favored, and both women were carrying special babies who would play central roles in the story of God’s salvation of the world. Perhaps the tongues were wagging, but Mary and Elizabeth don’t seem to be bothered. In fact, they carry on with the genuine excitement and vivacity that happens among pregnant women talking to one another. Despite the differences in their ages, in their life circumstances, and in the role their two babies will play in God’s salvation drama, Mary and Elizabeth chatter with a joy outside themselves.
There is something that happens in a visit. In the Bible we often read of God coming into someone's life through a visit of an angel or of a human being. The Gospel of Luke begins with an angel visiting Zechariah and another visiting Mary to bring them the news of the extraordinary conception of their children, John and Jesus, respectively. Zechariah declares in his canticle "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel because he has visited his people and set them free." More than half of the Gospel of St Luke is telling about Jesus visiting people, having meals with them, and then something happens. Visits are signs of love. One wants to visit the person one loves. Very often something happens in a visit. A new relationship is set up. A new plan is hatched, a problem is solved. We find Jesus curing the lepers as he visits a town. As he visits Capernaum he cures the centurion's servant and at Nain he brings the son of the widow back to life. He scandalizes the Pharisees by often eating at the homes of people who, to them, were sinners.
The people of God visit one another. It is how we show our love and concern and care for each other. It is one of the things we pastors do. We’re even given special parking spaces at the hospital because we visit. And every time we visit, somehow, we hope to be used of God to bring his presence and his light into the places we are called to go.
Back in May, when it was announced that I was going to be appointed as your pastor, I met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee for a sort of “Get to Know Each Other” meeting. Betty Davidson asked, “Are you a visiting pastor?” I try to be. I never visit as much as I’d like to. No pastor I know does. I could spend my entire 60-hour work week doing nothing but visiting, and I still wouldn’t be able to visit enough. I also wouldn’t be a very adept at preaching, administration, evangelism, outreach, community relations and responsibilities, overseeing staff, leading worship, spiritual renewal and self-care and the whole host of other duties that I have as this church’s pastor.
The story is told of a young pastor who went to visit a homebound member of his congregation. There was a bowl of nuts on the table, and as he visited, he would absentmindedly take a few nuts and eat them. He was rather embarrassed when he looked down and realized he had eaten the entire bowl of nuts. He apologized, but the woman he was visiting told him not to worry. She said, “Since I lost my teeth, all I can do is suck the chocolate off them, anyway.”
Visiting is important – it is something that the people of God do to take the presence of God and church to each other and into the world. I know of some churches that expect their pastor to do all the visiting. Unless the pastor visits, it doesn’t count. Even in some churches with several thousand members and multiple pastors, there is the perception that unless the senior pastor has made the visit herself or himself, it doesn’t count.
This is unfortunate. The perception is that the minister is a sort of paid professional, for whom a congregation has contracted to provide certain professional services. These services might loosely be described as “ministry.” In our context, then, a minister is a paid professional who does ministry.
Yet, we understand all Christians to be ministers. All Christians are members of the body, all Christians have a role to play. God is surely present whether a visit is performed by a member of the clergy or by a layperson. Whether lay or clergy, the church has visited, because I am the church, and you are the church, and we are the church together. Whatever you do, the church does, whatever I do, the church does. And it takes all of us.
We all have a role to play. God gifts us each according to the role God desires for us to play. It doesn’t all fall on one person. One person doesn’t have to have the whole picture, because we all work on different aspects of it. Too many churches are relying on their pastor to do everything, and too many others are waiting for permission from their pastors. If God has placed something within you to do, please just do it. Ministry is not just the pastor’s job. It’s for everyone, and it’s not a spectator sport. To help you consider how you’ll be involved in ministry, there’s an insert in your bulletin that says, “YES! I want to get involved!” at the top. Fill that out and drop it in the offering plate when it comes by – these are real concrete things you can do that will help you grow in your faith and help the church fulfill its ministry in the world. Everything on there is something you can do to take the presence of God into someone else’s life.
Friends, if we’re not about bringing the presence of God into people’s lives, I don’t know why we’re here. If that is not the driving force behind everything we do, we may as well lock our doors and go out of business. Everything we do needs to be about announcing and bringing the presence of God, and if we’re not doing that, I don’t know why we’re doing anything at all. We should be about the business of carrying God into the world.
Which brings us back to Mary and Elizabeth. When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, she took the presence of God. There is a Greek word that has been used to describe Mary for centuries. She is the Theotokos – literally, the “God-bearer.” Mary is the one who bears God. The baby she carries, the one who will be named Jesus, is none other than God-come-to-Earth, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
And Jesus is the good news. Jesus is the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news of God come to earth. It is about God reconciling all things to God’s very self, about God restoring all that has ever been marred, about righting every wrong, about turning the kingdoms of the world upside down and ushering in a new kingdom of peace. Attempts to make the Gospel any other thing will succeed only to sell it short.
The Gospel is not a story about Jesus. The Gospel is Jesus. When Mary carried Jesus, she was the first one to carry the Gospel. She carried the good news that God has come to earth, and through her, all people on earth continue to be blessed.
We Protestants have not really known what to do with Mary. Many of you probably remember times of great suspicion and animosity between Catholics and Protestants, and no doubt, a lot of it centered around Mary. We are reluctant to call her “Blessed” for fear of elevating her to too high a level of prominence. But right here in today’s text, Elizabeth greets Mary as “Blessed among women.” Indeed, Mary is blessed, and we would do well to pay her the honor she is due.
Growing up on the schoolyard, we all knew that one line of taunting was crossing the line, and that was talking bad about someone’s mama. While we all had a full arsenal of “Your mama’s so fat” and “Your mama’s so ugly” jokes, they were only used sparingly. Talking about someone’s mama was declaring war.
We Protestants should be careful about talking bad about Jesus’ mama. The son of Mary is also the son of God, God who dwells among us, God who pitches his tent with us, God who moves into our neighborhood. Mary is blessed among women, she is even, as the text reminds us, favored. I fear that anytime we diminish the role of Mary, we diminish the role of her son. However, honoring the mother leads us to exalting the son of God, and then we can join Mary in singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, and in so doing, she carried the very presence of God into her life. The text tells us that the child within Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy upon hearing Mary’s voice. These two women found their lives pregnant with God’s possibilities, and the result of that pregnancy was the rebirth of grace. And every time we, like these two, dare to imagine that with God nothing will be impossible, grace is reborn in our midst. Every time we find ourselves caught up in a kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love – the very things for which the candles in this advent wreath stand – grace is re-born. Every time we work for the furtherance of these values in places where they seem foreign, grace is re-born.
As we celebrate this Advent season, as we prepare for all the comings of Christ, let us commit ourselves to being harbingers and messengers of his kingdom. The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of a new kingdom, a kingdom for which weekly we pray. This happens when God’s people do the things God would have us do. It is not something for which we sit idly by and pray happens, for we are the hands and feet of Christ upon the earth. It is the reality for which we earnestly pray, but it is also the reality for which we diligently work.
I am asking each of you to do something tangible this Christmas. Our society teaches us that Christmas is like your birthday – more about the presents and the parties than about the inbreaking of God’s presence into the world. But friends, Christmas is not our birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday. Do something for Jesus this year.
Jesus came to heal the brokenness in our lives. This was his aim – to fix the broken relationship between humanity and God. That broken relationship always manifested itself in a broken relationship between people, as well. We see the evidence of this brokenness everywhere – war, violence, abuse, enslavement, poverty– and a whole host of social ills. Jesus came to do something about these; this Christmas, as we remember his birth, let’s do something about them as well.
This Christmas, I invite you to join me in a conspiracy. I invite you to join me in spending half of what you had planned to on Christmas presents for your friends and family. Enjoy the additional time with those who are closest to you instead of waiting in line at the mall. If you were planning to spend $1000 on Christmas gifts, try spending just $500. If you were planning to spend $100, try spending just $50.
But then, join me in donating that other half to bringing healing in the places of the worst human brokenness in the world. Through December, whatever you spend on Christmas gifts, bring an equal amount to worship. Let’s send our money to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for their ongoing work in the Darfur region of Sudan, named by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet today. There’s information in your bulletin that you can read further on this. Place your “conspiracy offering” in an envelope and mark it UMCOR. You can make this offering any Sunday in December, and our entire Christmas Eve offering will also be designated to this purpose.
We gather here in December, on this second Sunday of Advent, with stories of expectant virgins and angelic choirs, of babies who leap in their mothers’ wombs. We come to hear these familiar stories, not because we need to be reminded of their details, but because they stir the hope within us yet again, because we need to believe that with God, all things will be possible, because we need grace to be re-born in our midst.
The pregnant Mary visited the pregnant Elizabeth, and the fullness of God’s presence dwelt among them. God is coming into the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and I hope and pray that something within each of us jumps for joy at his presence. And when something within us leaps because of God’s presence, we find our lives impregnated with purpose – to proclaim the kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love through all the earth.
May we be those who take the presence of God into the world. Like Mary, may we carry the Gospel, and may we see grace born and re-born all around us.