September 27, 2020
With the Community Church of Durham
So what does Mary do with this news, with these circumstances, with the unimaginable situation she finds herself in? Betrothed, but not married. Pregnant, but not protected. A young woman blessed and called and curious about what all that means. “In those days,” the story goes, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” Or, in the more archaic versions, “Mary made haste.” “Mary made haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” To see Elizabeth there. To sing with Elizabeth in the hills. To test her intuition and discern with Elizabeth what it all means, what the blessing requires. Mary makes haste to Elizabeth. Because faith seeks the shelter of friendship. Because courage leans into community.
You can read this moment, this shocking moment in Mary’s life, in a number of ways. Different ways. It may be that she got pregnant of her own choice, a young woman experimenting as many of us do, leaning into life’s feelings and the body’s needs and figuring out relationships and what makes pleasure and love meaningful. Maybe Mary got pregnant that way. Or maybe—and we sadly know this happens too—maybe someone in her life took terrible advantage of Mary, abused her trust, abused her body. In a patriarchal culture, amped up on militarism and occupation, soldiers felt entitled, teachers felt entitled. Terrible things happened to young women like Mary, teenagers like Mary. In war time. Anytime. Maybe Mary got pregnant that way.
Or maybe this pregnancy truly was inexplicably miraculous. Life conceived simply and magically in the womb of a young Jewish girl, without the partnership or even the presence of a male collaborator. A rather shocking concept in a thoroughly patriarchal culture! Maybe this story bears witness to the possibility that men aren’t quite as indispensable, quite as necessary to the unfolding of salvation, the healing of humanity as we often think we are.
Whatever your reading of Mary’s pregnancy, whatever the circumstances of it, Mary knows exactly what to do. Just as soon as the angel departs. Just as soon as she catches her breath. Mary makes haste to Elizabeth. She doesn’t text her. She doesn’t check in with a phone call or post on Instagram. Mary makes haste to Elizabeth. And she stays there, in the hill country, with Elizabeth—singing and praying and musing and dreaming with Elizabeth—for three months. For three months of days and nights.
And Elizabeth and Mary—together, right? those three months, right?—Elizabeth and Mary become something like the original church, the very first church, a community of two. Maybe Mary has a hunch, maybe Mary intuits the promise, the purpose of her life. But Elizabeth confirms that promise, celebrates that purpose in prayer and praise, in long conversations on spirited walks in the hill country.
This is what churches are, right? This is what churches do. We receive one another’s stories. We make generous space for one another’s questions. We open our hearts to one another’s grief, one another’s hope, one another’s bewilderment. And in the midst of all that, in friendship and communion, we listen for the promises of God. We discern the purposes of each unique life, each precious life, each and every one of us shaped by grace, summoned into the light by the divine, called to some kind of service, to some kind of witness, some kind of vocation. You and me. Each and every one of us.
Mary suspects that the Spirit of God is at work in her life, in her heart, in her body. Mary imagines that the God of Mercy and Justice has called her out of the shadows to shine bright and bear divine life and believe in God’s future. Elizabeth translates Mary’s suspicion into her own language of blessing and belief. Elizabeth discerns with Mary the promise of Mary’s imagination, the music of Mary’s morality and the steadfast commitment of God to them both. Talk about a road trip.
And friends, this is gospel for you and me, as well. We’re tempted to think of our own lives as small, as limited, as constrained by circumstance and ordinariness. I’m just a mom with too much laundry to do or a dad with too many bills to pay. Or I’m just a mom with too many bills to pay, or a dad with too much laundry to do. The world kind of wears us down.
But the message in this text offers a robust rebuke to such nonsense. Your life—whatever cul-de-sac you live on—is precious and sacred and marked for blessing. Your life—nicked by busted bones or busted dreams—is made whole and holy by the God of grace. Your life—while it may seem limited by age or disease or energy, or who knows what else—your life is a sign of God’s intention for the whole cosmos. Mary comes to accept, and then to celebrate, that her singular life—complicated as every life is, restless as every life is, even ordinary (as every life is)—her life bears divine promise, even cosmic significance. Elizabeth turns the lights on. Mary gets to dancing.
And so it is, so it most certainly is, for you. There is some ray of light, some gift of love, some sweet friendship that is uniquely yours to offer the world. There may be some vocational dimension to this: you’re a poet, you’re a teacher, you’re an organizer. Or it may be your way of belonging, your way of committing, your way of loving. Your very particular life bears a very particular promise. And it’s our purpose—as your church—to discern this promise with you, to coax it up and out into the world with you, and to sing and pray and weep and rejoice with you for the fruit of your life, for the fruitfulness of your spirit, for the sweet gift that is your presence among us. Because you are significant. Your life has extraordinary significance and luminous purpose. I’m talking about you, Ernie Nsai. You know I’m talking about you. And I’m talking about you, Jon Bromley. And I’m talking about you, Kristin Forselius, and you, Chuck Hotchkiss, and you, Nancy Lukens. You are significant. Your lives have extraordinary significance and luminous purpose.
And that’s why Mary makes haste—as soon as the angel departs. That’s why she makes haste to a Judean town in the hill country. That what Mary believes Elizabeth can see in her. That’s what Mary senses Elizabeth can do for her. And for three months, for three beautiful, warm months—that’s what they do for one another. Mary and Elizabeth. The very first church. A community, a communion of two.
Often we call this Magnificat, this hymn to faithfulness and promise, this anthem to resistance and justice—often we call this Magnificat “Mary’s Song.” But isn’t it more accurate to call it THEIR song: Mary’s and Elizabeth’s song? I mean, in the text, Luke imagines this song, emerging, swelling, rising up in the context of their three-month visit. In the setting of their shared discernment and reflection.
Actually, it’s not just a song: it’s a covenant, it’s a promise, it’s a benediction. Emerging in shared discernment. Spiritual reflection. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” See how their song interprets their lives (their pregnancies, their swelling bellies) in terms of God’s persistent passion, God’s cosmic courage, God’s preferential option (if you will) for the poor. It’s not simply that God loves Mary, that God sees Mary, that God watches over Mary. That’s true. And that’s well and good. But the claim here, the gospel here, is that God is working in Mary to bring the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. God is working in Mary, and in Elizabeth too, to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.
Notice the verbs here. Because God’s verbs become Mary’s verbs become Jesus’ verbs. Right? This is a loving and merciful God—who BRINGS DOWN the powerful. Brings them down. This is a loving and merciful God—who SENDS AWAY the rich and the proud. Sends them away. These are powerful verbs, robust verbs, action verbs. So that—and here’s the preferential option part—so that this same God can LIFT UP the lowly and poor. Lift them up. Resurrect them to new life. So that this same God can FILL UP the hungry children, the hungry parents, the hungry bellies of the world. Fill them up. See what I mean? God’s verbs here become Mary’s verbs become Jesus’ verbs. God is Love. God is Love. And justice is what love looks like—Cornel West wrote this, but it might have come from Mary—justice is what love looks like in public.
A couple weeks ago, when we gathered on the lawn down here, we were blessed and delighted by a stunning offering of dance, color and choreography. “Lord, You’re Mighty!” That was the soundtrack. “Lord, You’re Mighty!” Our elders danced. “Lord, You’re Mighty!” Our youth danced. “Lord, You’re Mighty!” And in those moments, among seekers and believers, we knew it was true. We saw that it was true. “O Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth!” Somehow, in some way or another, our God is bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and dismissing the tyrants from their grip on our institutions and futures. It’s happening, it has to happen in us: in our bellies, in our choices, in our commitments, in our prayers. “O Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth!” Somehow, in some way or another, our God is lifting up the lowly and poor, resurrecting the courage of weary refugees and brokenhearted mothers in places like Minneapolis and Louisville, in Ferguson and Charlottesville. It’s happening, it has to happen in us: in our bellies, in our choices, in our commitments, in our prayers. “O Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth!”
Watching you dance that morning, I thought to myself: This is what God’s people do in exile. This is how God’s people wait for revolution. This is the way we worship when nothing makes sense, and everything matters, and the God of Love is stirring in our deepest, deepest parts. This God, our God isn’t simply blessing what is; this God, our God is waiting to be born in new arrangements of justice and peace, waiting to be born in new songs of praise and celebration.
“Lord, You’re Mighty!” You know, it’s either yes or it’s no. It’s either yes or it’s no. Either “Lord, You’re Mighty!” or “Lord, You’re Not!” We cannot say, friends, and we will not say, “We’re just a small church.” We cannot say, and we will not say, “Our resources are meager.” We cannot say, and we will not say, “We’re simple people in an ordinary place.” No, somehow, somehow, we’re going to dance. Like Mary and Elizabeth. Somehow, somehow, we’re going to sing. Like Mary and Elizabeth. “Lord, You’re Mighty!”
There are a lot of things going on that make no sense: like Mary facing an unexpected pregnancy, maybe even a cruel pregnancy, and insisting she’s going to change the world forever. Change it for the good. We see leaders mocking the disabled and dead. We see governments dismissing science and public health and accepting mayhem and death instead. We see our kids and their teachers sorting through the chaos and worrying about the consequences every week. There are a lot of things going on out there—that make no sense. But we go where Mary goes. We sing as Mary sings. Our spirits magnify God, our souls rejoice in our Savior, and we lift up the name, the glory, the promises of a Mighty God! And as we do, as we do, we make God’s verbs, Mary’s verbs, Jesus’ verbs our own. Do you believe that? I believe that! Even out here, especially out here, in the wilderness.
Thanks be to God!