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Psalm 126 & Luke 1:39-56
We have a rare occasion this morning, folks…the bigfoot of Biblical narratives. It happens so infrequently that we sometimes gloss over it, not even noticing the stark contrast. It is a reading, from the Bible, where the voices are almost entirely female. I’ll say that again – in this version of the Gospel story, the birth of the Christ-Child, it is mostly the women whose account…counts. The writer we call Luke includes women more than any other gospel and, perhaps most tellingly, gives them voice and agency. Their stories, of course, still follow the familiar model, men don’t believe them. Time and time again throughout Luke, the women – in conception, at the birth, in the parables and stories, at the tomb – tell their truth and have it discounted, or ignored. And yet, Luke says again and again, their stories are precisely where the action of God lies.
So I wonder this morning how we hear this claim in the light of the current trend of exposing sexual harassment and abuse? I’ll call it a trend because nothing new is being revealed here, we’re just finally listening for some reason. Why now? I don’t know. For women have been telling these stories for centuries, and also being ignored or discounted, quieted or disparaged for the same amount of time. Women have always had to learn how to live within systems that discount or discriminate. Yet it feels like we’re in the midst of some paradigm shift – what was once acceptable, even seen as the proper order of the universe, is now being questioned and rejected. And the reach is broad, from Hollywood to Washington DC to Alabama to Lake Wobegon, the accusations are spread out across all parts of life, surprising everyone except for women.
The context of Luke is very patriarchal, even more so than our own context. Women were second class citizens in Luke’s time, considered property, designated for child-bearing and burdened with carrying both the shame and the honor of a family in their sexuality. So when this Christmas story claims what it claims – that a child born out of wedlock is part of the blessing of God, it is a scandal. So, the story shapes the basics…it focuses on the divine interaction, making Mary’s pregnancy miraculous, even supernatural. It makes her saying “yes” to an absurd plan an act of faithful consent, even as the listeners of Luke’s time know that this places her at great risk. The story, you might notice, never needs to spell out such risk, it is understood. It never says – and this was taboo and punishable by death, or women don’t do this sort of thing, or that everyone will assume something different than divine pregnancy orchestrated by angels. It doesn’t have to say that.
So, we can wonder – did Mary hurry to Elizabeth’s house because she was excited about this faithful adventure, or because she was scared, and seeking the shelter of community that would understand how vulnerable she was – young, unmarried and pregnant? Did she, like the networks of women who whisper to one another which guy at work to avoid be alone with, simply seek the protection of another woman in a world which is not built for them? For at least two generations now, feminist theologians have pondered Mary’s pregnancy: was this really the Holy Spirit, as the gospels claim, or had Mary slept with a man, or been raped by a man, and gotten pregnant?
Now, that’s the boldest of claims against the tradition, bolder even than suggestions that Mary is not a virgin. After all, virgin births were a dime a dozen in the ancient world – Romulus and Remus, Alexander the Great, even Augustus Caesar were all said to have been “virgin born.” But one need not make such amazing claims to claim this – a fact revealed in the very text of Luke itself – Mary was pregnant and not married. That made her exposed in her time and place, without any social cover of tradition or law. And that came with whispers and glances, maybe even outright rudeness. Eating a little too much these days, Mary? Weren’t you talking to that Canaanite boy, Mary? What happened, Mary? What were you wearing?
But that’s not where the story goes. Those are the details we must imagine. The story goes instead to the heart of Mary. Gabriel has come to her, not to Joseph in Luke’s telling of the tale, and presented her with what he calls a “gift” in the lines just before our reading today. “Rejoice, favored one!”, Gabriel says. “The Lord is with you!” [Mary] was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. Yeah, I’ll bet she did. If you can wonder how it might feel to have a reporter show up on your doorstep and ask to hear your story from 20 years ago that no one would listen to then, maybe you have some sense of why Mary is a little baffled. How is being single and pregnant a gift and honor? How does she break this good news to Joseph, who will be pretty clear he’s not the father? And how, in the midst of all this, does she come to Elizabeth’s house with joy?
We know that Mary has been conditioned by culture to believe that her life is not her own, her body not her own, her children not her own. This declaration, which is held up for us during Advent as glorious and celebratory, sounds dangerous and terrifying to her. So much so that she does what we all do, she turns to her faith, the tradition, even scripture to lift up an anxious heart. And then she would have fled to the only thing that women often have – the comfort and relative safety of other women. This is why the very first thing that she does after this almost unbelievable account of angels and the “overcoming” of the divine and pregnancy without the necessary ingredients we all know about…her very first action after this announcement of amazing proportions is to go to Elizabeth’s house. For it is there that she can rely on her cousin, her friend, another woman who is used to being powerless, too….used to being both trapped and empowered by the same faith, tradition and scripture.
It is there that she sings this song, this hymn that we count as one of the eight oldest in the Christian tradition. It is only Luke that has Mary sing this song, though it seems to have been around, part of the early Jewish-Christian hymns that surfaced in the development of the Jesus movement. It echoes the words of Hannah from 1st Samuel, and the visions of the prophets of a world yet to come. It is not an announcement of fear, but a strong and bold pronouncement of the action of God that is coming, even here. And it is a Divine action that breaks bonds instead of creating them, a vision of the Holy that liberates and empowers. God, in the words of Hannah and Mary, has done the impossible with them and now they will see that in the world – the scattering of those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
My friend and colleague, the Rev. Caela Simmons-Wood of First Congregational, Manhattan, Kansas, updated this dream in a sermon she preached just last week, calling it, “an ancient mirror held up to our own time”:
“God has smashed the patriarchy, lifting up voices of women, men, children who stand against abuses of power. God has gathered whispers into loud shouts, protecting the vulnerable. God has spread stories of #metoo like wildfire. God has given courage to those whose knees and voices shake. God has silenced those who have been used to having the megaphone. Once again, God has pulled down the mighty from their perches of power.”
The incredible nature of this dream is matched only by it’s lack of manifestation. Yes, Mary dreams of God’s strength on full display, thrones upended and hierarchies overturned, but all it would take is one look outside Elizabeth’s window to know that this dream is not reality. Nor has the dream of peace born to us in the flesh on a Christmas day 2000 years ago brought us any closer to that reality, either. Are there any of us who think that the world is turning for the better…that peace and justice are winning the day…that the triumph of good over evil is readily and obviously apparent?
Perhaps Luke tells the story of Mary this way so that we might appreciate the gestation of hope. Any woman who has ever given birth will tell you that it doesn’t happen on our timelines. You don’t control and manufacture it, you surrender to it. And what a lesson must be here for us, that Mary is given the gift of hope – a hope that will grant her awkward stares and social rejection, a hope that will be dangerous and her answer is to surrender to it. Mary already knows that this is a question of trust, not certainty. Just as Elizabeth knows and another Mary will know sitting at the feet of Jesus and a Syrophonecian women at a well will know and the women at the tomb. They know. They know like the #metoo movement knows, in ways that defy the silence and the endurance and speak the truth, like it was coming from the voice of God Herself. The injustice is real. Your pain is real. And God cares so much about it that God, our tradition tells us, comes to us in human form as a tiny, helpless infant who might not even survive infancy to help us understand how God’s power works.
This song is a song of joy, not a song of happiness. Happiness is something fleeting, it is at best a by-product of choices we make, not the goal itself. Joy comes when we can knit together all of those short moments of happiness and begin to see the horizon, the acceptance in the midst of deep struggle or pain that there will be a sunrise. Joy comes in the waiting, in listening for an angel to remind you that life can be transformed, that we are always more than our worst thing, and while what lies before us may be very hard, it may be painful or heartbreaking, the in-breaking of light and love is not impossible. For nothing is impossible with God. Nothing is impossible with God…a claim that is not so much to be believed as it is to be trusted, not so much affirmed as hoped, for hope is not contained in certainty,
it is something into which we surrender at the beckoning of angels.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come.