December 11, 2016 | Luke 1: 26-55 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
In the fourth month of my cousin’s pregnancy when she was expecting her fourth child, she sat down with her three children, all under the age of five, to tell them she was going to have a baby. She pointed to her growing belly and explained that each one of them had come from inside her tummy. Her youngest, sitting with his arms hung around Jack the family dog, asked “What about Jack? Did he come out of your tummy too?”
That was back in the 70’s when using scientific language to describe human anatomy and the inner workings of the female body was still something reserved for the intimacy of the doctor’s office. It’s understandable that a child raised with such discretion might be confused about where babies come from as opposed to where puppies come from.
But lest we think, after hearing this morning’s scripture reading, that the ancient world was more comfortable with anatomically correct language than my eldest cousin’s generation, in the ancient world to speak of a woman’s womb and the fruit within it, or more accurately the child within it, was also conversation reserved for only the most intimate of settings. Specifically, it was reserved for conversation among women.
So when the writer of Luke’s Gospel brings us into this intimate moment between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in which the child within Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy at the mere sound of Mary’s voice, the signal to us as readers is to pay attention. Something private and precious is happening here and we, the hearers of this story, are being invited in. We are being treated essentially like family, as if we too know what it is like to have God come so close that we can literally feel what it is like to have new life stirring inside us and joy kicking us right in the gut.
Like many of you here this morning, I have never actually carried a child within my womb, but I can certainly identify times in my life when I have felt the stirrings of new life inside of me. The first inkling I ever had that I was being called to ordained ministry began with an uncomfortable feeling in my belly. My earliest thoughts about coming out about my same-gender relationship were accompanied by nausea which I am sure is akin to morning sickness. When I realized I could no longer resist the pull to leave my former congregation to come and serve this community when invited to do so, the mixture of excitement and self-doubt I felt swirling around inside me was very similar to the excitement and sheer panic I felt inside when I found out I was going to become a parent.
What I notice about each of these experiences is that although all of them were about doing a new thing, none of them started with pure joy. Each was accompanied by a good measure of uncertainty and fear. So much so that when I first began to feel those stirrings of new life, I was rendered speechless. If I didn’t tell anyone I was having these feelings about being called to ministry perhaps I wouldn’t have to actually respond to the call. It I didn’t come out of the closet, I could stay safely hidden inside. If I didn’t acknowledge that I was being pulled towards a new pastoral relationship, I would never have to disappoint the people of my former congregation. When we found out we were pregnant, for that first trimester we didn’t tell a soul, just in case the pregnancy didn’t last.
The decision to leave a job or a relationship that isn’t right, the resolve we make to speak out or take action against injustice or to choose any unconventional path for the sake of greater freedom and more abundant life, almost always begin with internal thoughts of uncertainty, self-doubt and fear. So we keep things under wrap until we can no longer hold our tongues. And when we do dare to speak, who do we speak to? We speak first to those we can trust, first to those who will affirm and understand us or dispel us of the error of our ways if need be. We speak to those who will come alongside us and embolden us to do what we might otherwise have thought ourselves incapable of doing. There’s something about the act of sharing our news with others, especially news that calls forth courage, that makes our joy kick in.
When the writer of Luke’s gospel chooses to give us the conception of a messiah wrapped inside the womb of a virgin, a child who it is said will turn the world completely upside down, raising up the lowly and scattering the proud, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty, he knows that without allies, without co-conspirators, without kin, the dream of a world made new will never find what it needs to be brought fully to life.
And the fact that he chooses for Mary a co-conspirator and confidente who is as unlikely a mother as she is, Elizabeth, a woman well past her prime, indicates that nothing about the way the world is going to be made new, is going to fit our pre-conceived notions of who it is and how it is that change is going to happen.
Mary needs Elizabeth to conspire with her in bringing this life to birth. She needs her to help her get beyond her fear and uncertainty and doubt. The child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, the one who will prepare the way for Mary’s world-rearranging child, needs the assurance of the child in Mary’s womb to know he’s not going to be left alone in the wilderness crying out for renewal and for change. For Elizabeth, joy kicks in when she knows there’s back up coming for her child. For Mary, joy kicks when she realizes there are those in the world who share her conviction that God is about to do a new thing and the new thing God is doing is radical and daring. And when her joy kicks in, she suddenly finds her voice. She sings this beautiful piece of poetry we call the Magnificat.
A couple days before the US election I was invited into a private Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation. The group was started about three weeks before election day by a Hillary Clinton supporter to provide a safe place for people to share their hopes and dreams of electing the first female president of the United States. In three weeks it attracted more than 3 million followers. I didn’t do more than glance at a few posts when I was first introduced to the site. There were lots of pictures of people wearing their “Hillary” pantsuits on election day or posting “I voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone, but when the votes were counted my face book feed began to flood with stories of anger and despair. Within days I began to get a real feel for the make-up of the 3 million and growing members of Pantsuit Nation. They are Muslim women and gay men, mothers of transgendered children and people with disabilities, mixed-race couples with bi-racial children, Latinos and Jews and every other kind of minority and marginalized individual you can think of. And almost every one of them in those first few days after the election had a story to tell of being bullied or harassed. There were threatening notes left on cars, houses spray painted with homophobic words and threatening comments made in the check- out lane at the grocery store. After about a week of reading all these posts I’d had enough and I was getting ready to remove Pantsuit Nation from my Facebook feed.
But then something unexpected began to happen. The tenor of the conversation shifted. In the wake of all the anger and despair over broken dreams and all the anxiety of what kind of future lay in store, something else started to germinate. Instead of only angry and despairing words being posted on the site, I began to notice words of resolve and stories of resistance.
One person posted a picture of this sign that she put on her lawn in the days after the election. (Sign reads: We will stand with you if you are Black, LGBTQ, a Muslim, a woman, disabled, Hispanic, a victim of sexual assault. And if he builds a wall we will teach our kids to tear it down) Another spoke of the walls of empathy that had arisen in subway stations in San Francisco and New York. People started wearing safety pins to indicate if you were being harassed, they were someone you could come to for help.
Previously unknown allies, co-conspirators and kin began to signal to one another that renewed life, renewed hope, renewed convictions were being stirred up within them and they were not going to remain silent. And the more people that dared to speak their truth and share their story, the more stories there were and still are to share.
Every day I check my Facebook there’s another stream of people who have found their voice, another verse of Mary’s magnificat being sung for our day and our time. And every time I read one of these stories I feel another little kick of joy inside of me that tells me, God is still singing right along with us, we are not alone.
The Sunday after the US election those of you who were here will recall me issuing a warning for us not to think we Canadians are above experiencing the kind of division we are witnessing in the states. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for my concerns to be realized. Here is a picture of the doors of Parkdale United Church in Ottawa 10 days after the election. In the photo you will see Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey, he’s one of the finest preachers we have in the United Church. His brother was stabbed to death on the streets of Montreal in 1976 in a racially motivated crime. He died in Anthony’s arms.
Here is a flyer distributed to homes in Richmond in the days following the US election. (photo on screen) This is the rally in Edmonton last week at which protestors chanted “lock her up” in reference to Rachel Notley’s support of a carbon tax for Albertans.
I hate that this is happening in my backyard. It frightens me, but it is also stirring something up inside of me and I hope it stirs up something inside of you too. That something which feels kind of scary and yet kind of powerful inside of me, makes me want to shout hallelujah when I see that in Ottawa shortly after Parkdale United Church and their neighbouring Mosque were defaced with racial slurs, the nearby synagogue organized a solidarity march for the city. That something inside me wants to stand up and applaud when I read in the paper that the churches in Richmond have come together to organize a rally for unity in support of the diversity of their city. That something makes me want to yell “you go girl” when I see Rachel Notley standing courageously in the face of distasteful opposition or when I hear about the “lift her up” campaign that has been launched in response to those chants against her.
Because when I see the life that those around me are trying so hard to nurture and sustain, when I see the dreams they are struggling to bring to birth, the life within me leaps for joy and I want to be part of that conspiracy of love, don’t you?
That’s what the intimate story of Mary and Elizabeth is inviting us into this morning. It’s inviting people like you and me into a conspiracy of love in the face of very powerful systems of oppression. It’s telling us that is where the Christ child will be found.
I want to tell you one last thing about my cousin because I didn’t give you the whole story when I told you she was pregnant with her fourth child. The first time she had a baby in her tummy, she was actually carrying twins. She lost those babies before they were born in a car accident she was in. It always amazes me when people who have sustained that kind of loss stare death in the face and choose to embrace life again, in her case not once but four more times after that terrible loss. It speaks to me of the persistence of life and in the context of our Christmas story. It speaks also to me of the vulnerability of God, who in the Christ child, comes right into the midst of our dangerous and messy world, close enough for us to have to decide, whether or not we are going to pay attention to the stirrings of life within us and the kind of joy that kicks us in the gut.