Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pregnant with Possibility (Luke 1:39-56)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
56Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

We were barely back from our honeymoon when the questions started, “So, when are you two going to have some kids?”  It didn’t come so much from our families or friends as it did from two very curious congregations, who perhaps felt more license in asking about their pastors’ reproductive practices than we were comfortable answering.

We soon realized that people were watching us for clues.  Heaven forbid Ashley wake up under-the-weather, OR in a particularly good mood – causing someone to say, “Is there a particular reason you feel the way you do today?”  Even having a few saltine crackers between worship services caused someone to say to Ashley, “I noticed you’re having saltine crackers in the morning,” to which my wife replied, “Yes, because I’m hungry, and I still have another service to get through before lunch.”

I don’t ask people about their plans for children.  For one, I figure that’s their story to tell, and when they are ready to tell it, they will.  For another thing, I have come to realize what a deeply personal and sometimes painful topic that can be for folks.  I think of those I know who desperately want to be parents, but for some reason can’t be.  I think of those who have made an intentional decision not to have children.  I think of couples where one partner desperately wants children and the other doesn’t, and it’s a source of constant fighting between the two.  I think of those who are struggling with issues too painful, complex and difficult to talk about.  I think of those who waited for years to adopt a child, only to have the whole thing unravel at the last minute.

I don’t ask, and I don’t assume.  Kids, and the issues around having them, can be complicated and difficult, to say the least.  If anyone knew that, it was the two women we’ve met in today’s Scripture reading: Mary and Elizabeth. 

By the time we meet up with Mary and Elizabeth, some extraordinary things have 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: she would give birth to 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.”

I imagine Mary was scared to death.  An unmarried, pregnant teenager, which was about as low on the social ladder as you could get in those days.  Sure, she had her story about this being God’s baby, but do you really think the gossipy old biddies around Nazareth were buying that story?  Unless human nature has changed drastically since then, I don’t.  We know that even St. Joseph, her fiancé, didn’t believe her at first, not until an angel appeared to him in a dream.

I doubt there were many options for a girl in Mary’s position.  The penalty for pregnancy out of wedlock was death-by-stoning, if Joseph had wanted to pursue it.  Nazareth wasn’t the most forward-looking place on the planet, and certainly not the kind of place Mary would find support and help in a time when she needed it most.

Some have asked where Mary’s mother was in the picture – the Scriptures don’t say – but I’ve wondered many times if it wasn’t Mary’s mother’s idea for her to go and visit Elizabeth.  Perhaps Elizabeth had shown some particular kindness to Mary at a family reunion a few years ago, but for whatever reason, Mary leaves her home in Nazareth of Galilee and makes the long journey south to the village of Ein Karem, in the forest-covered hills of Judea, and shows up on Elizabeth’s doorstep.

At the sound of Mary’s greeting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy for one simple reason: Mary was carrying the Son of God.  Mary was bearing God’s very presence to Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth opened her home and her heart to receive Mary, she also received God’s very self.

Mary, the young girl and Elizabeth, the old woman. Distant relatives they were: Mary, mother of our Lord, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Two women from two very different generations, both with complicated and difficult to explain pregnancies, both carrying children through whom God would change the world into God’s peaceable kingdom.  Both Mary and Elizabeth were literally pregnant with the possibility of God’s promise.

Elizabeth says that Mary is blessed and highly-favored.  We use that word, “blessed” an awful lot around church.  But as Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

We often count our blessings or number our blessings.  Blessings are almost a materially-quantifiable thing – “look at my possessions, my home, my family, my things, I have been blessed.”  Yet, in Scripture, being blessed means something very different.

Will Willimon says that if an angel appears to you and tells you that you are blessed and highly-favored by God, if you’re smart, you’ll run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.  Contrary to popular belief, receiving God’s blessing is not going to make your life easier or more comfortable.  Being comfortable and being blessed are two very different things, and we would do well not to confuse the two.

I doubt the one who left the splendor of heaven to come to earth as one of us, who took on our infirmities, who was born to the lowest of the low and who died a criminal’s death – I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time believing he’s calling us to a life of ease and comfort.

In short, God blesses us in order to be a blessing to others.  With great privilege comes great responsibility; to whom much is given is much required.

Friends, be very careful about asking God to bless you.  Because God might just give you what you ask for!

Every blessing we receive, we feel compelled to share.  What God gives to us, we feel called to give away.  Maybe that’s why we place an emphasis on giving at this time of year, maybe that’s why Scripture teaches it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Our whole faith is predicated not on the accumulation of things, or possessions, or wealth, or power.  The mystery of the Gospel is that God’s kingdom comes when we give those things away – God’s kingdom is a reversal of the values of the world – whereas the world tells us that true meaning comes in the accumulation of power and prosperity, greatness in God’s kingdom comes when we give all those things away.  It comes when we who are blessed make everything in our lives a blessing to others.

Sure enough, that’s what Mary was singing about in today’s Scripture reading.  Mary sings a song about what the child in her womb will accomplish – a song that is good news for the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden, a song that is not such good news for the wealthy and powerful.

A song we often sing this time of year is “Mary, Did You Know?”  It asks if Mary knew everything that her child would accomplish.  Based on the song she sings, I’d say Mary did know.  Most importantly, what she knew was that the blessings she received were not intended exclusively for her, they were to be shared, and would be a blessing to the entire world.

How about you?  How do you view your blessings?  As a gift specifically to you, meant for your exclusive enjoyment, or do you realize that God has blessed you in order to bless others?  When any of us views ourselves as the final destination of God’s goodness, then we’ve missed the point entirely.  But when we realize that what we have is meant to be shared for the well-being of others, then the kingdom of God is very close, indeed.

Being blessed didn’t make Mary’s life easy.  Even by the time she breaks into song in today’s reading, life is already hard for her.  It’s not going to get easier for her, and yet she keeps right on singing God’s praises, her soul just continues to magnify the Lord.  Her joy is not tied to her circumstances, indeed there is hardly anything in her circumstances, from a worldly point of view, that would make her happy.  Rather, her joy came from the presence of God within her, and she anticipated the abundant life that child would bring to all, the resurrection, even, of all that was dead and broken and destructive in the world.

Despite the circumstances of her life and her world, Mary kept singing.  Today, we are invited to join our voices with hers, to learn her song, to raise our voices in a song that continues to glorify God in all circumstances, trusting that whatever seems lost now will someday be redeemed.  We are called to sing her song because so many in our world desperately need an encounter with the healing presence of God.  In the words of Meister Eckart (1260-1327), “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”

Mary sang because she looked around at her world - a world addicted to injustice and oppression and exploitation, a world in which the wicked seem to prosper, where hopelessness, and hate, and violence, and despair seemed to rule the day - Mary caught a glimpse that through her child, the whole world was about to change.

Mary sang because God would get the last word - and the Word is Jesus.

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