Saturday, December 15, 2012

And How Should We Then Love? (Isaiah and Luke)

I worked on another sermon, off and on, all week.  This morning, this one.  For all I know, there will be another at midnight.  As the tumblr site says, Everyday I'm pastorin'.  And everyday I'm livin'.  Hard to merge the two, some days.


“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God  is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  So proclaimed the prophet Isaiah to a frightened and burdened people.  So proclaimed Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to one another.  So do we proclaim to a world disheartened and angered by yet more violence against innocents.
The bulletin has been printed since Wednesday.  The sermon was finished on Friday morning, with no doubt a little tinkering to be done yesterday and this morning.  The pink candle was awaiting its moment: the candle of joy that reminds us, in the middle of Advent, that our waiting and our preparation are directed toward the joyous reception of our Savior. 

And then the rest of Friday happened.  Friday with all of its horror and heartbreak. Friday, on which quiet Newtown, Connecticut lost so much and so many, so many of them so very young, in the very middle of what the radio and store music incessantly tell us is “the most wonderful time of the year.”
How to speak of Mary and Elizabeth joyously greeting one another after a day in which a small town and an entire nation were launched into the chaos of grief?  How to talk about their relationship and mutual hospitality, with such a jagged gash across the face of human community?  How to light that pink candle, which glows so bravely and yet so tentatively in the face of such tragedy?

The question, it seems to me, is the one which the prophet Ezekiel posed: “How should we then live?”  Or, more completely, “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?”
When I typed that sentence into my computer the first time, I made a mistake, and the question read, “How should we then love?”  Perhaps that is the real question, for those of us who live not merely post-Ezekiel, a prophet who spoke to a wounded people centuries before Mary and Elizabeth appeared on the scene, but post- Incarnation.  As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we are a people who live in that already-but-not-yet kingdom of Jesus Christ.  We live in a time in which the kingdom of God has “already” begun to swirl around us, coming among us with the birth of Jesus.   But we also live in the time of the “not yet” kingdom, “not yet” because the fulfillment of God’s longings for us await the return of Christ and the healing of all creation.

Friday was a profoundly “not-yet” day.  And in the wake of Friday,  How should we then live?  How should we then love?  That’s the new title of today’ sermon:  How should we then love?
And what about that day of encounter between Elizabeth, mother-to-be of John the Baptist, and Mary, mother-to-be of Jesus?  What happened on that day that might shed light upon our question?

They were not women living the lives they might have anticipated .   Elizabeth, was, as you heard last week, too far along in life to have expected a child in the usual course of events.  Mary was too young – not even married yet!  For each of them, a pregnancy was something of a scandal.
And yet, neither of them seemed to feel a sense of scandal.  Neither of them was operating under a cloud of shame.  Each of them was convinced that God was active in her life; that God was at the root of all that was happening to her and that God was accompanying her through what, on the surface, appeared to be the most challenging of times.

We don’t know exactly why Mary set out to visit Elizabeth.  Perhaps she had heard about Zechariah’s silence and about Elizabeth’s seclusion for five months, and thought that they would appreciate some company.  Perhaps she was apprehensive about her condition and in need of the friendship and solace of an older woman.  Perhaps they were, in some ways, quite ordinary women – first-time expectant mothers who naturally sought one another out.  Perhaps it was precisely because they were not ordinary that they drew close to one another: an older, more experienced, and wiser woman and a youthful, innocent, curious woman, both of them trying to piece together lives disrupted by news from an angel.  Both of them sorting, seeking, questioning, wondering, longing.   We don’t really know all the whys of that visit.
What we do know is the what of that visit, and the what was: Joy. 

Joy in the form of a baby, leaping in his mother’s womb.  Joy in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, calling her “Blessed among women.”  Joy in Mary’s proclamation of what God is accomplishing through her.

Joy in the face of great darkness to come.
Joy in the knowledge that, even though they lived in a time of weary oppression, even though the brokenness of a world of violence, of arrogant leadership, of poverty, of hunger, was self-evident to all who inhabited it, even though they themselves were among the least – God had begun the great work of healing all of creation – in them.  Quite literally in them .  Embodied in those women were the great prophet who would pave the way and the Son of God who would be the way.

What does Joy mean?  We’re a little sloppy today in the way in which we use words, and we tend to use the word “joy” as a synonym for happiness, for pleasure.  We use the word “joy” to describe a feeling.
If that’s all that joy is – a good feeling of happiness – then it would be impossible to find joy in the wake of Friday.  There is nothing to be happy about in the events that occurred in Newtown, and in what lies ahead for the folks there in the weeks and months and years to come.

But joy in the Biblical sense means something else.  Perhaps it helps to recall that joy, while not a feeling or an emotion, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  As the apostle Paul tells us in Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 
But what does that even mean?  It means that, contrary to our natural inclinations about these things, that they are not feelings, and not products of feelings.  We don’t experience love, or joy, or peace because we feel like it.  We don’t dispense with patience or kindness or generosity because we’re not in the mood. This list of Paul’s – this list of fruits of the Spirit – names gifts of God which are showered abundantly upon those aligned with God. 

Now we may not feel as if these gifts have been showered abundantly upon us.  I seriously doubt that the parents or other loved ones of those who died in Connecticut, or those who survived to walk out of the school building, are feeling as if gifts of the Spirit have been bestowed upon them.  But let’s try to think in a scriptural way about what happened:
In one of the much-publicized interviews of the survivors, one of the teachers described herding her little students into the classroom bathroom and barricading them, herself included, in there.  She described her own terror, and her determination that the last words those children would hear, if that were to be the case, would be words of love and reassurance.  If she doesn’t represent the fruits of the Spirit – love, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control – then I don’t know who ever would.

But joy?  She would not, I imagine, describe joy as a component of her Friday.  I can’t speak for her, but if I were in her place, I would be using words of despair, of anguish, of grief – not words of joy.  Her small students survived – but not all of the others did.
And yet, if we know that joy is found in aligning ourselves with God, in doing what God calls us to do – was she not, in fact, one with Mary and Elizabeth in a moment of utter clarity, a moment of courage in which she moved in concert with the Spirit?

In the face of evil, of outrage, of terror, how should we then live?  How should we then love?
According to our Gospel text, Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she greets Mary, recognizing and greeting Mary as the mother of her Lord, and interpreting the movement of the child within her as a leap for joy.  And Mary, whom we know has been filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, claims joy for herself.

The lives of the children they await will reflect the harshness of this world.  John will turn his life over to the call to enlist others in preparation for the coming messiah: to repent, to turn from evil and toward light and life, to make space for the advent of overwhelming, impossible, relentless love into our lives.  Jesus will spend his years of ministry teaching and caring for the confused and broken-hearted, the ill and injured, the lost and hopeless: he will BE the advent of overwhelming, impossible, relentless love into our lives.    And in the mist of the turmoil of their time, turmoil just like that of our own time, of which Friday is not merely emblematic but a very real instance, they will both lose their lives.
And so why are their mothers rejoicing?  Why do they sing songs of joy and praise?  Let’s listen again to what Mary proclaims:

[The] Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

All will change.  The order of things as we know it, the human order of things, will be entirely reversed.  God’s love, coming in the form of Jesus, will up-end the usual course of human events, so that the powerful will be humbled and the hungry will be filled.
We will hear these words echoed by Mary’s son, when he preaches his own set of reversals.  And among them will be, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus will not merely live in a world of sorrow and suffering and then die the death of a condemned criminal.  Jesus will rise; Jesus will be the reversal of all.  When Christmas comes, we will gather to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” which tells us that he will be “risen with healing in his wings.”  Remember the prophet Malachi, the messenger, whom we read last week?  Those are his words: that the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.
That is why we light the candle of joy.  That is why, on the same day on which we shake our fists at the sky, on the same day in which we echo the roar of Job, on the same day on which we cry out with the psalmist of lament,  we rejoice: That one will come among us with healing in his wings.  That one will come whose birth will launch the reconciliation of all peoples. That one will come whose resurrection means that all of creation – all of it – the birds and the oceans and the fields and the cities and the war zones and the towns and each of our individual selves – all will be repaired and healed and molded into the universe God the Creator has always dreamed of and longed for.

How should we then live?  How should we then love?

We live, and we love, as the descendants of Mary and Elizabeth: as a people filled with the Spirit, receptive to the fruits of the Spirit, and aligned with the purposes of a God of abundant love and light.  We live, and we love. as two women standing in the doorway in the morning light, proclaiming a God of promise and hope. 




  1. Oh friend. You leave me in tears...

  2. Powerful testimony of faith and hope. Good news, indeed! Thank you, Robin.

  3. So beautiful, Robin. Beautiful and terrible.

  4. thank you, Robin. I may need to re-write mine yet again, but probably after church tonight....

  5. Thanks for this, Robin. Hope in the midst of horror.

  6. I really appreciate your reflections on Mary and Elizabeth, on women and mothers. I won't get to Mary and Elizabeth until next week and think I'll bring the pink candle, the joy, in then - since the order of the candles and the day of pink can vary between week 3 and 4. But the idea of joy as a gift of the spirit that means and brings more than an emotion of happiness is powerful. Joy, which embraces the fullness of God in all dimensions - a much more authentic understanding of Joy and God than a cheerful, empty, happiness.

  7. Made a few changes this morning after watching the dad talk about his little girl last night, but absolutely no energy for incorporating them here.

  8. Robin, you are flat out amazing. God bless you.

  9. Robin, thank you very much for facing the horror of Friday and finding a reason for joy in our world.