December 15, 2019

Advent Three

Rev. Carla Wilks at Mt Seymour United Church

In 2005 when I was pregnant with Heather, my second born, I joined an online baby group with other moms from across Canada and the US, who were all due in the same week of December, which was the week of December 24th to the 31st.  Our group was called the BrrrBabies – like as in Brrrr cold.  I was living in Ontario at the time, and I was the youth and families minister at the Grace United Church in the town of Hanover, and my husband was the Anglican priest in town… and we had a baby due Christmas Eve.  What a perfectly convenient day for two ministers to have a baby.  As it turned out, she was born on the 15th of December. That baby, my Heather, is 14 years old today.  But my point – this online group of pregnant women that I was part of… Some were pregnant with their first child, and for one of the women, this baby represented her 6th child.  We ranged in age from about age 21 to 45.

We were and are a very diverse group. We had a labour and delivery nurse in our midst, another nurse who works in a cancer clinic and one who works in organ donation.  We had two women with their PhDs in Neuroscience, and teachers and photographers, a minister and even a Hollywood actress for a time.  We have some Trump supporters and one who is now running for Congress as a Democrat. Despite our diverse backgrounds – or maybe because of the diversity – this group became for many of us, a source of encouragement and wisdom.  If we had a question about anything to do with our pregnancy, someone was bound to have a well-researched answer for us, or had previously experienced what we were going through.  Many of us had experienced prior miscarriages so were approaching this pregnancy with some fear and concern, and having the support of this group of women helped to ease our concerns.  Many of us have met in person on a few occasions, and many of us are still close to this day and provide encouragement and support as our BrrrBabies have gone through many changes and are now 14 years old, and as we as moms have gone through changes – subsequent pregnancies, losses of pregnancies and babies, career changes, divorce, marriages, and deaths of family members.

When Mary, this young girl probably of about Heather’s age, received word that she was going to give birth to a child, she was likely confused and terrified.  Who could she talk to about what she had been told?

As we heard in the reading two weeks ago, as Gabriel was about to leave, he told Mary that her relative Elizabeth was also expecting a child – also unexpected, as she was what was considered beyond childbearing years.  Earlier in Luke we hear about the circumstances of the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – a messenger from God told Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah that Elizabeth was going to have a child.

Elizabeth was six months pregnant when Mary became pregnant.  The reading said that Mary “went with haste” to visit Elizabeth.  We don’t know why Mary went to see Elizabeth. We don’t know if she was sent by her parents to help out while Elizabeth was pregnant. We aren’t told if she was such a free spirit that she just picked up and took off on her own. Or perhaps Mary thought that Elizabeth might understand some of what she was going through.  Regardless of her reason for going, she did not waste any time seeking out support.  And it was no easy task to get there.  Elizabeth didn’t just live across town.  She is thought to have lived 80 miles away, which would have been a nine-day journey by foot.

After Mary’s nine-day journey, she arrived at Elizabeth’s house and announced her arrival.  Luke tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb and then before Mary even said anything, or told Elizabeth her news, this story tells us that she already knew.  She called her blessed, and acknowledged that the baby is the Holy child.  Mary was at most just a couple of weeks pregnant, yet the identity of the child was already recognized.

Imagine Mary’s feelings as this was happening.  She arrives at Elizabeth’s house, confused and afraid – maybe even afraid to share her news with Elizabeth, and then much to her surprise, Elizabeth already knows and is excited, and calls her blessed.

God is already at work to overturn the world’s structures and expectations. The spotlight shines on Mary and Elizabeth, two lowly and shamed ones through whom God has chosen to begin the transformation of the world.

By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectations. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. She might expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from Elizabeth. Yet Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded. In her culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. Her response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status. At long last, in her old age, she is seen as an honorable married woman, pregnant with her husband’s son.

Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to the outcasts of society. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.[1]

Have you ever known someone who had it all, but constantly complained about it?  There are those for whom despair is a habit, and negativity a way of life.

And then there are those whose lives have been far worse than our own, by the world’s standards.  And yet, somehow, they seem to live lives of gratitude.  The room brightens when they walk in.  And even though their life has been such a burden, somehow they are a source of strength even for others.

This is the Mary of today’s Gospel reading.  She has not changed on the outside.  She is still a young girl, pregnant out of wedlock, living 2000 or so years ago.  She is still someone that the world would say was living a cursed life.

Yet something has changed.  Something inside.  Something has shifted her perspective so that the illusions of the world around no longer have power over her.  The support that she received from Elizabeth turned Mary’s shame and confusion at her situation into joy because she was accepted with joy by Elizabeth.  And Mary is able to respond by saying out loud, “I am blessed”.

Whether we realize it or not, we have all likely been an Elizabeth to others.  Looked up to as a mentor, a source of encouragement, wisdom and perspective.  And all of us need Elizabeth’s in our lives – someone who understands, can guide, encourage and affirm us.

Adam Hamilton in the book called The Journey that this Advent series is based on, talks about someone who has been an Elizabeth to him in his career.  This older pastor that has been a mentor to him.  He encouraged and believed in him. When he started as a minister in his first church after ordination, this mentor of his called him and invited him to call whenever he had anything to celebrate – he’d be Adam’s biggest cheerleader, or if something happens that doesn’t go so well to call him then too, because he’d always be there to listen and care for Adam.  He’d always be in his corner.

Take a moment and think about someone who has been an Elizabeth for you – someone who has supported you through a difficult time, or someone who encouraged or mentored you in your life, been a cheerleader, listened without judgment and always been in your corner.

And think about someone who has been a Mary – someone who looks up to you for the same.

Mentoring is such a gift – it blesses the one who is being mentored, but it also blesses the one who is mentoring.  Mentoring is listening and encouraging, offering perspective and ideas.

The baby group that I was part of was made up of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s, supporting and encouraging one another on our journey to motherhood, giving and receiving blessings of mentor ship in such a vulnerable and joyful and stressful time of our lives.

Elizabeth’s words and actions in the welcome of Mary and joy at her pregnancy invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God is present in our world. What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today? Where is God at work through people whom we might exclude or treat as shameful? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?

Elizabeth and Mary have shown through this story a beautiful example of encouraging each other and may we, like them, become a community that supports each other as we hope and wait for the birth of Jesus, God-with-us Emmanuel who lifts up the ones in society who are the last and least, and encourages us through the nudges of the Spirit to do likewise.

May we pay attention as we journey throughout this Advent and Christmas season to who God is calling us to be encouraging for, to those in our midst who could use a lift and may we remind them of the ways in which they are a blessing.  And take some time to thank the Elizabeth’s in your life as you reflect on the blessing that they have been for you.

Because we all need an Elizabeth, and we are all called to encourage a Mary.

Thanks be to God.