Monday, December 17, 2012

Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1: 39-56, NT page 57 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 the Lord." And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God's name. God's mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered 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. God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. Sermon Last Monday I was proud to be invited to attend a meeting of the Monday morning Presbyterian Women's Circle who met at Carolyn Fisher's home, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season. Carol Turner was leading the discussion, and invited everyone to share a story about one thing that they inherited, which seemed appropriate as Christmas is a time where family gets together, and important memories and traditions are inherited by new generations. For some, an intangible inheritance has become most important, and it was the faith of her parents and grandparents that Nancy Wells shared with the group last Monday. For others it was tangible, inheriting a treasured ring or bracelet, and that’s how it is with my grandmother too. Once she retired from nursing after 50 years she was able to focus on her true passion, shopping, which left more than enough for everyone to inherit. I don't say that jokingly. Shopping was honestly her hobby, and while he complained about it like any husband would, the way she decorated her home is still a source of pride for my grandfather. In her spare time she filled every open space on a shelf with a knickknack, every square foot of wall space with a picture, and her closets were full of what had either lost its place to something more perfect or purchases bought without a place to go. Some people fear death, others fear public speaking, but my grandmother - she would often say to my mother, "Cathy, when I die, if I hear about you carting my furniture outside for a yard sale, you better know that I will haunt you for the rest of your life." She knew what many do – that what is valued today may not be valued by the next generation, and what was a treasure to her might not be valued by her family when she’s gone. Mrs. Jean Lock has a rocking chair, and according to Miss Jean it’s not very comfortable and it probably needs to be reupholstered. This rocking chair is not obviously precious, but when Miss Jean was 4 years old she remembers sitting in that rocking chair in the days following her father’s death. Her grandfather rocked with her there in his lap, back and forth, and today Miss Jean looks at that chair and is thankful that as a four year old girl she was able to provide for her mourning grandfather some sense of comfort in the wake of his son's death. "I don't know where it will go next" Miss Jean said, but in a world where so many people need comforting I have no doubt that a chair like that one will find a good home. Ours is not always a culture of grateful inheritance; what is offered by the old to the young is not always accepted graciously, so it’s a rare scene in our second scripture lesson for this morning. "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." Mary, not old enough, and Elizabeth, a little too old; they both are in need and they both are able to provide something for the other that no one else would have. When everyone else was wondering if Elizabeth had lost her mind, having a baby at her age, Mary knew it wasn’t a scandal but something holy. When everyone else was looking down their noses at Mary, this unwed mother to be, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." It’s after these words from the only person who would understand that Mary sings out: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant." You've heard these words before - when sung this section of the Gospel of Luke that our pew Bible titles "Mary's Song of Praise" is known as the Magnificat, and while beautiful all on its own, the words to this song take on particular meaning when you consider that Mary doesn't sing in the presence of the angel who tells her that she will give birth to the Son of God, but when she is in the home of her cousin Elizabeth, when she is safe with the only other person on earth who could relate to what she was feeling. It’s the common bond between women united by their miraculous pregnancy that makes Mary sing. Just as it’s only in the safety of the common bond between mothers and mothers to be that the truth comes out and the real questions the weigh heavy on worried hearts are ever asked. The same is true for recovering alcoholics, who, in AA that find that the struggle to sobriety has been done before and may be done again. The same is true of the common bond of war that forges friendships between veterans that will never be broken. These two women, Mary and Elizabeth, understand each other despite the years that separate them, in a world where no one else would. But this song that Mary sings here is not just a bond between Mary and Elizabeth. Mary's song had been sung long before Mary's birth, long before the birth of the Roman Empire, before even the great Kings of Israel. In the early days of the Temple, when the people were new inhabitants of the Promised Land after generations of slavery in Egypt and wandering through the wilderness, there was a woman named Hannah who dreamed of a son. She made a deal with God, promising that if God would give her a son she would dedicate that son to serve the Lord at the Temple. After his birth, on the day she left him there at the Temple, she sang this same song to her son Samuel, the boy who would grow up to become a great prophet, ushering in the monarchy, even choosing David who became the greatest of Israel's kings. This song passed from one generation to the next - from mother to son, son to kings, kings to their children, from one generation to another until it streams forth from the lips of a young woman, a would be bride, who carried God's very son in her womb. It was an inheritance. And no matter how old, how in need of being reupholstered it was, this song filled a young mother with hope and joy, and she is joined in singing it with that ancient mother Hannah who felt Mary’s same feelings before. The best kind of inheritance speaks this way, saying, “You are not alone.” And in your fear and anxiety here Elizabeth and Mary have something to offer you – because they know how you feel. They have felt it before. To have children is to be simultaneously joyful and terrified, and so they offer you a song that passed through the generations from one woman to the next, to give you the strength to face the same heartache and the words to express the same miracle of life by borrowing the same song that express a feeling that they felt and now you feel. Isn’t that what you’ve been looking for – someone who understands? Children know that Santa Clause can bring them the perfect gift, knowing them so well as to deliver the joy of their desire on Christmas morning, but through the years more and more you wonder if anyone really knows you that well, if anyone can really understand. Last Friday after 20 children and 8 more adults were murdered in that Connecticut elementary school President Obama addressed the nation. He could not reverse the events of the day, he could not fix it, but in wiping away his own tears he showed our nation something else – that the parents of those lost children are not alone in their grief. What is Christ if not the sign from God, that in our sadness, in our desperation, in times of tragedy, God does not turn and walk away but is born unto us. Unto our lives, unto our imperfection, Christ is born to know our pain and sorrow, and in him we know that God knows what it means to love and lose a child. This Christmas mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, will fight through lines, navigate through malls, surf through websites, to find the perfect gift for the ones they love. To achieve the intended result on Christmas morning, credit cards will be swiped, the bottom of the barrel will be scraped, and budgets will dip into the red, but remember this - the best gifts that will be given this year may cost much less though they are infinitely more valuable. Love one another, seek to understand one another, for all anyone is looking for is to know that they are not alone. Amen.

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