December 19, 2021
Rev. Scott Landis
The fourth Sunday in Advent is sometimes thought of as a prelude to the real thing. With Christmas right around the corner, this Sunday is often referred to as – Christmas Sunday. Christmas pageants, and parties, carol singing, getting gifts and cards in the mail on time can crowd out the importance of this day. But I urge you to focus for a moment and not miss this unique encounter between Elizabeth and Mary. For the next few moments let’s put aside all those other important things and ponder how this amazing meeting might be instructive for us – even now.
While there are understandably a lot of holes in the story, it seems clear that Mary’s pregnancy came as a bit of a surprise. Having been visited by the angel Gabriel who told her what was about to happen, Mary had some decisions to make. We can only imagine the variety of emotions that swirled inside her as she “pondered all these things in her heart.” Fear, confusion, anger, and the stress of needing to decide what next to do.
We rarely take the time to ponder the what ifs in this story – for example, what if she had refused. She could have easily succumbed to human emotion and run as fast and as far as she could to try and escape this destiny of which the angel predicted. Maybe that is exactly what she intended as she went “with haste” not to her betrothed (Joseph), but to her cousin (Elizabeth) who was similarly and miraculously pregnant. She went to someone she thought might understand. Someone who could console her being in the same predicament as she. Someone who just might be able to give her some good advice on what to do. When we’re scared and in trouble that’s typically what we do. We reach out to someone whom we think might understand. Someone who may know something about what we’re going through. [Pause]
Most of you know, several years ago my former partner died very suddenly and unexpectedly of acute leukemia. I don’t think I ever heard of the disease before. It came out of nowhere. There was no time for goodbyes as the period from diagnosis to death was only a few hours. When he died, I remember standing outside in the hospital parking lot unable to locate my car, unsure of what next to do, and feeling more alone than I have ever felt in my entire life.
This was back before gay marriages were legal, and domestic partnerships (which we had) were relatively new. It was clear the hospital staff did not know what to do with me. For two reasons, first, I was a pastor and should know what to do when someone died, and second, I was gay – I sensed from them my love could not be the same as others. But I assure you, even though Brennen and I were together a mere 5 years, our love was as real and deep as folks married for 50. I was devastated by the loss. I truly didn’t know what next to do.
About a month or so later, I noticed one of the hospice agencies in town was forming a grief group for gay men who had recently lost their partners. Well, I went – “with haste” and met with a group of guys who truly understood. These were men who seemed eager to be together. Men who held no pretense, no judgment, no expectation – and there I found hospitality, and healing, and eventually renewed strength to move ahead. [Pause]
When Mary arrived, Elizabeth’s child leaped in her womb. And the Holy Spirit came upon her, and she spoke words of acceptance and affirmation, a beatitude of sorts: “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Similar to my experience, Mary’s fears subsided. Her doubts vanished. Her anger melted and she was renewed in her spirit. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, she sang her song – and what a beautiful song it was.
It was a song of justice. It was a song of liberation. It was a song of confidence and of blessing. And it was a song through which she clearly proclaimed from the depths of her being – now, she had the strength to fulfill God’s plan for her life.
Through her encounter with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary was given the connection and the sense of community she needed to empower her. She no longer would move backward or away from the calling of God. She instead could proclaim with complete authenticity, “My soul MAGNIFIES the Lord, and my spirit REJOICES in God my Savior, for he as looked with favor upon his servant. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.
Those do not sound the words of a scared 14-year-old peasant girl. No, these are the words of the one who has heeded the call of God. Blessed by someone who understood her completely, she decided consciously to “Move Godward.” [Pause]
I reminded my Wednesday Zoom Group this past week of the importance of that encounter and its implications for us today as a church. We are, all the time, buffeted by surprises and changes that can rock our world and leave us cowering – pulling back or pulling away as we try to cling to what WAS – unwilling to deal with the reality of what IS or what MIGHT BE. And that’s precisely why God calls us to come together – as a congregation.
We know each other. We understand each other. We trust one another and we can gain strength as we rely on one another for hospitality, healing, and eventually the strength to move not backward but “Godward.” I am certain that is God’s desire for our congregation.
When we do that, acknowledging the depth of our feelings including our doubts and our fears, even our sorrow or anger, I am convinced that God leaps for joy as we accept the invitation to move increasingly toward God – to “Move Godward.”
[There are so many in our congregation who are hurting today. Loss, change, confusion, uncertainty— theses words have become normative for us.]
Like Mary, it does us no good to look or move backward — even though that may be what we think we must do for security – a feeling that’s even more compelling when there is no real clarity in moving forward. And yet, as Mary discovered, when we heed God’s invitation – and respond to God’s call and “lean in” to whatever is vexing – we will experience the true gift – God’s Aloha. [Pause]
One of my favorite preachers, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, in writing on this passage summarized it this way. “If there are some big changes in your life right now – if something is underway you cannot predict the end of, and your stomach is rolling with your own version of “morning sickness” – you might try following Mary’s lead. Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit will come upon you. Maybe that shadow hanging over you is the power of the Most High.
Who knows? God knows!
While we would love to have the details of how it will all turnout (whatever “it” is) – that is unlikely. And that is precisely why we need to turn toward each other. So, we can gain the strength we need to turn Godward. [Pause]
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Love – Aloha. We will soon end our season of preparation and we will welcome, once again, the birth of our Savior who is our hope (mana’olana), our peace (maluhia), our joy (hau’ole), and the true source of love (aloha). And in the same way as we walk to the center in a labyrinth, we can pause, light our candle, sing our favorite carol and relish the moment. We may want to stay there. But God calls us to move away from the manger – back out into the cool of the night – where it is still dark and uncertain. But the call is not into solitude. No, the call is into community. The call is Godward. It is there, like Mary, our souls just may find the strength they need to “magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.”
May that be your truest gift this year.