Benediction Online

Sunday, December 24, 2006

In Mary’s time, to be an unwed pregnant woman was not just an inconvenience but a serious social problem. Joseph should have broken off the engagement in outrage and Mary should have been ostracized from the community. Matthew’s gospel explains that in a dream God told Joseph that the child was from God, and so instead of doing the socially expected thing he honored his earlier commitment and married the pregnant Mary. However, there were still the growing belly and the neighbors to consider, and so Mary went with haste into the hill country where she had family.

When we hear rhetoric about the importance of the heterosexual nuclear family it is worth pondering the fact that Jesus was apparently born without benefit of heterosexual union and there certainly weren’t nine months between his parents’ wedding night and his birth. Even in the manner of his incarnation our God did not abide by social expectations.

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth welcomed her with open arms. There are very few Biblical passages which show us two women relating to each other there are only three that I can think of. Here (Luke 1:39- 56) we see two women who have both been left to some extent alone to cope with the implications of their pregnancies. Presumably Joseph was back home getting used to the idea of a new wife and a son that wasn’t his, and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, had been struck dumb so was probably less than usually supportive. We don’t know whether Mary knew she would be welcome at their home, but Elizabeth’s joyful greeting left her with no doubt. The pregnant teenager was given a royal welcome.

How wonderful that must have been. We usually think of Mary as a strong, resilient woman, and so she became. But as a teenager it must have been a great blessing to be with her older relative with whom she could compare notes, not only about morning sickness and the sudden movements within her, but about the role in salvation history that they and their sons were called to play. Elizabeth was a strong presence for Mary as she thought through all that she knew about the enormity of what was happening.

Mary and Elizabeth model faith community for us. Elizabeth accepted Mary unconditionally; she was present for her in her time of need; they encouraged one another; and they prayed and praised God together.

I think we often underestimate the importance of the ministry of presence; the ministry of simply being present to each other. There are many reasons we give for not taking time with one another; we don’t want to intrude, we’re too busy, we’re shy, they probably have other people they’d much rather see or hear from. Yet when I talk with those who are grieving or in any other trouble, it is the presence of faith community that is so important to them. It is the sense that they are not alone in their time of difficulty that helps them to have hope. Research has shown that people who go to church live longer. Perhaps it is because they have a spiritual faith that sustains, and perhaps it is also because they have a faith community. They are in contact and connection with others.

This is not, however, something that we can take for granted. We have to cultivate our connectedness. In order to connect with Elizabeth, Mary had to get up and go into the hill country. She had to make a special effort. This is a season when we consciously connect with family and friends, when we send cards and letters, get together and share our homes. It is also a deeply lonely time for many of us, when we are very aware of the gaps and the absences; of those who are not present with us. In our ministry of presence for one another we can honor the breadth of experience, the differences in our life stories by not making assumptions, by not assuming that we know what another is going through. Yet, in order to continue to flourish and grow, our connections have to be nurtured not just once a year but week by week, month by month. We often have to be intentional about being present to each other in community and not getting lost in busy-ness.

Mary and Elizabeth encouraged one another; two women in very different life circumstances, but each one carrying within her a life that would change the world. Each of us today carries within us the life that is changing and has changed the world. Each of us carries within us the life and the light of Christ. We need encouragement. We need to be reminded of who we are as Christ-bearers. We encourage one another by sharing the signs of God’s grace that we see in or lives, by sharing not only the joys and the sorrows, but also the subtle workings of the Spirit. As we share how we experience God, so we help each other to experience the divine more fully.

It’s a lot like birding. There are a lot of little brown birds that live around here. They all look rather alike until someone tells you that the tip of the Godwit’s beak points up to heaven whereas the Dowitcher’s points down; or you learn to distinguish the call of the white crowned sparrow, and suddenly you hear it everywhere. If I share with you how I have seen God working in my life, the understandings that I have received recently, what I’m learning from my spiritual reading, then it may help you to see those things in your life too. My conversations with each of you show up in my sermons because I learn every day as you share with me glimpses of the divine and help me to see God’s hand more clearly in our lives.

Mary and Elizabeth praised God together, and Mary’s song (usually known by its Latin name, The Magnificat) has been remembered through the ages; ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Savior.’

You know that I don’t agree with the moral and political positions taken by many of our evangelical friends, and I think that Mary’s song supports the gospel of social justice and inclusion. But there are many things we can learn from evangelicals, and this is one; the power of praise and prayer. I wonder what difference it would make if whenever we got together, whether in meetings or for coffee, or just on the phone, we praised God and prayed together.

As a church we are shy about praying together. It’s easier to bake cookies or a casserole than it is to call up and pray with someone. It’s easier to discuss the weather or local politics than it is to praise God together. There’s something wrong with that picture.

We are a church. We are a faith community. We are called to love God, and to love one another as much as we love ourselves. This doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t happen just on Sunday mornings. It takes intentionality and practice. St Benedict’s has been described as the friendliest Episcopal church; we are always welcoming and open to visitors and newcomers. Yet I think this picture of Mary and Elizabeth calls us to take our understanding of faith community to a new level.

It calls us to be intentional in our hospitality to one another, practicing the ministry of presence whenever we can. It calls us to encourage one another not only in the practical aspects of our life together but in our knowledge and practice of the presence of God. Above all it calls us to constantly live our lives within the context of our faith, bringing everything to God in prayer and praise together. When we learn to share our faith as Mary and Elizabeth did, then the life within us will quicken and burst forth into the world.


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