Two Pregnant Ladies
Passage: Luke 1:39-45, 56
Date: December 3, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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In preparing for the sermon this week, I came across a delightful sonnet about this Bible story. It's called “The Visitation” by Malcolm Guite. As you hear these words, picture older pregnant Elizabeth greeting the young and pregnant Mary.
Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.
Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed (unknown to men of power)
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
And Mary stands with all we call “too young,”
Elizabeth with all called “past their prime,”
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time.
Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.
(from Sounding the Seasons)
This little scene is one I used to skip over as I prepared for Christmas. I was much more interested in Mary and her song, in Mary and Joseph, in the angels and the shepherds. But as I’ve gotten older, and as one who had what OB/GYN slovingly call a “geriatric pregnancy,” and as I watch my own daughter’s relationships with her kinswomen, her aunties, this story has become rather dear to me.
This story has become dear to me especially this week, with prominent man after prominent man after prominent man experiencing the repercussions of their harassing behavior; I am grateful for this story about these two women. They had no power to exploit and no fame to hide behind. Elizabeth had no children, and in her world that gave her no status. She was, as females were accounted for in those days, a failure. She had not been able to do the one thing that would validate her. She was of no account.
Mary was unwed and pregnant, which did not give her power but which did give her notoriety. She was vulnerable, as all pregnant women were in those days before prenatal medical care, and she was endangered, as the laws of her faith allowed for her to be killed for being unwed and pregnant.
And yet. And yet! Though powerless and in peril, shamed and vulnerable, there is still so much joy in their greeting, and as it turns out, all the power of the universe is contained within them. Because while there is one kind of power in violence and in coercion and in threat, there is another better power in life, in miracle, and in love. I will take Mary and Elizabeth over Matt Lauer, John Conyers, Roy Moore, and the lot of them any day.
This story has become dear to me as I become more and more aware how much our children and youth need Elizabeths in their lives. Two weekends ago the three Neels went to a wedding on Bainbridge Island. It was the wedding of our daughter Sarah’s first babysitter, a Presbyterian minister named Staci who provided love and safe space to our infant then toddler. One of the guests was our friend Heidi, who had been our next-door neighbor in Wisconsin, and who is truly one of the best people in the world. On Saturday morning, Heidi and Sarah went off for a hike by themselves, and I was so grateful that our daughter had time with this amazing adult who loves her without condition, this amazing adult who is not her parent.
You know what I mean. We need those people in our lives, be they older or younger than we are. We need those people like Elizabeth, who welcome us with open arms, with empathy, who are delighted when we show up unannounced on their doorstep. Do you have those people in your life, the ones with whom you can be completely honest, knowing you will not be met with judgment?
In her marvelous book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott devotes a chapter to why she makes her son Sam go to church. I'm going to excerpt parts of the chapter, but it’s worth picking the book up again to read the whole thing. But here’s more or less what she says.
“Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church – who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to go. This is not exactly true: the truth is he never wants to go.… you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say.
“I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.
“But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.…When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew [her church] tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home – that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, ‘You come back now.’
“Sam was welcomed and prayed for at St. Andrew seven months before he was born. When I announced during worship that I was pregnant, people cheered. All these old people, raised in the Bible-thumping homes in the Deep South, clapped. Even the women whose grown-up boys had been or were doing time in jails or prisons rejoiced for me. And then almost immediately they set about providing for us. They brought clothes, they brought me casseroles to keep in the freezer, they brought me assurance that this baby was going to be part of the family.”
I like to think that Elizabeth said something along those lines to Mary when she showed up, that the child she carried would be part of the family. Little did she know that we would become part of his family one day.
Which leads me to the third reason this story is dear to me: it reminds me of the kinship we have with one another because of Jesus. So we have to get theological for a minute or two.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes a section about how sin came into the world through one man – Adam – and redemption from that sin came from another man – Jesus. That has led to a certain strain of religious thought in which Jesus is described as the New Adam, the new father of humanity. You may quibble with that if you’d like, or think about, but I believe that both Paul and Luke are trying to make the same point, which is that in Christ, we are connected to one another.
In today’s story, the child in Elizabeth’s womb, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, recognizes the life of the one in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth calls Mary’s child “Lord” but I think it’s even simpler than that. Near the heart of the story is the truth that all these things about Jesus’ birth are about a family. It's about the family of Mary and Joseph, and the extended family that includes Zechariah and Elizabeth and John. But the angels of the story remind those people and us that this is a story about the family of humanity, a family that began with two people in a garden, that extends to us and beyond us.
We are kin of Mary and Elizabeth, which makes us kin with Christ and with each other.Ancestry.com and 23 and Me will not show that we’re related by blood, but our hearts and souls tell us that we are related through grace. Elizabeth lives that out – family takes you in, family reminds you of the joy of your life, family listens to you pour out your woes and hopes.
And so if, through Christ, we are family to each other, then – what?
Let me ask you this: what would you do if a Mary in your life showed up on your doorstep, afraid and excited and in need of something she couldn’t name? How would you respond, given your faith, your understanding of the way God calls you to live, and your identity as kin of Christ?
Or what if a new family shows up at church, as Anne Lamott did one day at her church, and they show up pretty regularly and you watch their kids grow and scuff the backs of the pews and rustle during worship and you watch the parents’ hair get grayer and you watch all the struggles and joys that families have – how would you continue to make this place home to them?
These days we face the same basic struggles that Mary and Elizabeth faced. People live in dire poverty, then and now. People face humiliation and shame, then and now. People are the victims of abuse of power, then and now. People know the real fear of violence and sudden death, then and now. The story has not changed all that much.
But in the last two thousand years, our kin have also known hope and comfort. Our kin have known friendship and consolation, then and now. Our kin have known love and reconciliation, then and now. Our kin have known life and joy, then and now. And that is because God has been present, then and now, to turn our surprises into miracles and to turn our powerlessness into joy.
A joyous Advent to you.