Sermon. Birthing The Sacred and Subversive

In Response To: Luke 1:39-45

I’ve always felt drawn to Mary. There is something about her that resonated for me. Some secret power I felt she had. Some way of approaching the world that I wanted to learn from.

At home I have an altar. It’s a collection of various things that remind me of my relationship to the divine. There are rocks from places I’ve been, crystals, pictures of people I love that have passed, herbs, candles, and an icon of Mary holding Jesus.

Over the years many people have asked me about it. Since I don’t come from a church background, it always seemed a bit out of place. And I’ve never really had a clear answer for why I’d gotten it or why I felt so strongly connected to it.

Maybe it’s because, like Mary, my mother was also young and unwed. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the strength it takes to defy stigma and fight to find your place when the world tells you there is no room for you in their church, their school, their inn.

I have seen what it means to shoulder the assumptions of others and continue on.

Mary is too often forgotten in many protestant faiths. There are few hymns written in her honor and we don’t often hear about her in sermons. When we do talk about her we use words like virgin, mother, vessel. As is often the case for women we focus only on her body, her sexuality, and her child. She is said to be obedient, meek, humble, immaculate. In fact the immaculate conception, which is often misunderstood, doesn’t refer to the birth of Jesus at all, but the birth of Mary. It is said that God protected Mary from original sin when her mother Anne was pregnant with her so that she might be able to carry Jesus in the future. So that the virgin birth might be possible.

As if she needed to be pure in order to birth something holy. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the sacred is born of an imperfect willingness. A desire to say yes.

Words that we don’t often use for Mary are ones like bold, defiant, subversive, strong. Too often Mary’s agency is recast as obedience, her faith changed to obligation, her body stripped of choice. But when the Angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she is to conceive a child, Mary says, “Here am I”. She says yes.

And what exactly was she saying yes to?

She was saying yes to a sacred possibility. Yes to a new world. Yes to hope. Yes to change. But that yes required so much more of her. It meant also saying yes to the possibility of public condemnation. Yes to risking her social standing and her security. It meant saying yes to her calling and no to the oppressive social norms that would keep her from it.

These are not the actions of a meek woman.

In this week’s scripture we read about Mary’s trip to see her cousin Elizabeth. Their stories are remarkably similar. In fact 6 months before the angel Gabriel visited Mary he came to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband. He told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth were to have a child, which Zechariah didn’t believe at all. After all both he and Elizabeth were well beyond child bearing years and they had not been able to conceive before. In the story it says that when Gabriel heard Zechariah’s doubt he took away his ability to speak. So in silence Zechariah watched as his wife became pregnant and as she began to prepare for the arrival of their son.

When Mary visits Elizabeth they are both pregnant. Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist. It says that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice something within her lept with joy. I like to think of it as the feeling of recognition that comes when you meet someone on a similar path or when you witness someone who has stepped into their own greatness. Afterall, both Mary and Elizabeth were women who took great risk to say yes.

It made me think of the feeling I get when I watch someone doing what they love or when an audience gives a standing ovation. My stomach flutters, my heart swells, and I almost always cry. True, I am a sap. But it is more than that. It is a feeling of recognition that something sacred is happening. The feeling of a community honoring those who have said yes to their own calling. It is the feeling of witness and validation. It is too rare these days. And when I see it something leaps inside of me.

I like to think that’s the same feeling Elizabeth had.

Elizabeth was no stranger to controversy herself. At the Bris for her child it came time for the community to name him. They assumed his name would be Zechariah, after his father, which was the custom of the time. But she insisted that he be named John, as the angel Gabriel had asked. The community refused to honor her request but she persisted. Eventually, defeated, they looked to her husband for confirmation and since he could not speak he wrote down, Yes, his name is John. And at that moment, Zechariah’s voice was returned to him.

There is a time to advocate fiercely, like Elizabeth. To embody our faith, like Mary. But like Zechariah in this story sometimes we need time to sit quietly with our doubt. We need time to listen, to witness the boldness of others, to learn, but the moment will always come when we are asked to speak, and we need to be prepared.

As we approach Solstice and Christmas, we celebrate the returning of light. We mean it both literally and figuratively. We speak about anticipation and stillness. It would be easy to be fooled into thinking that this was a time of passive waiting. But that is far from true. Instead it is a time of introspection and preparation for the light.

But it is easy to get distracted. It’s easy to check out. There are gifts to buy and parties to plan. We do everything we can to avoid sitting still. We do everything we can to avoid the discomfort of darkness.

But let’s face it, there have been some dark days lately. There has been too much death, too much violence, too much fear. Our families are too painful and distant. Or our families are too close and overwhelming. We are lonely, lost, anxious. We suffer, and we confuse the darkness with isolation.

It doesn’t help that the news is full of stories that sometimes feel void of hope.

Entire countries are turning away from refugees in need.

This week the New York Times reported that attacks against Muslim Americans and Mosques in this country have more than tripled.

On Tuesday a professor at a christian college was placed on administrative leave because she suggested that Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God and dared to wear a hijab in solidarity.

Earlier this month Mario Woods, a 26 year old black man was killed in San Francisco when police shot him at least 15 times.

But when I hear Gwendolyn Woods, Mario’s mother, announce that she is suing the police department for excessive force and the murder of her child I think about Mary and Elizabeth. I remember that they too lost their sons to state violence. And I see their strength in Gwendolyn.

There have been dark days. It does us no good to pretend otherwise. But there is also light. Even if only a flicker of hope, joy, love, or peace in the distance. Even if only the flicker of a promise. A promise that the light always returns. Always. Both in spite of us and because of us.

It is something I’m learning to live into. It is something I’m trying on. The faith and resilience of Mary, of Elizabeth. I have an icon on my altar to remind me.

And when I look at it now, I am reminded that we each have the capacity to give birth to something sacred. We can do it today, this week, this year. And we need not be pure or conventional or certain. We need only to be willing. We need only to believe that a new world is possible. We need only take it seriously. We need only say yes.

 

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