Too Much Hope
A Meditation on Luke 1: 39 – 55 and Micah 5: 2- 5a
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 23, 2018
We have everything looking pretty…in our homes, our church, our offices, too. Christmas lights twinkling…are you a white-lights-only person or do you prefer strands of red and yellow and blue and green? LED or old style?? The wreath is on the door. There might still be some cookies to bake, and, if you are like me, the floor always needs vacuuming one more time. And the gifts are wrapped…mostly. One friend of mine, an artist, has a different color palette for her gift wrappings each year. If her spouse uses the “wrong” paper, his gifts are not allowed under the tree, where they would spoil the effect…
She has a perfect tree. Nothing wrong with that! Some go for a theme: Disney or sports. All gold and white. All vintage. All brand new. A mixture of handmade and store bought. One year, my grandmother gave my mother a six foot silver tinsel Christmas tree. Silver tinsel tree and boxes of red satin balls, coordinated with a red tree skirt. My grandmother was all about the sparkle. She and Charlie Brown’s nemesis Lucy would have been soul sisters. My mother? She wasn’t really into sparkle. Not a silk or artificial plant of any kind was allowed to cross the threshold of our home. Until her mother showed up with this tree. This was the mid-1960s and I was a preschooler. I thought the tree was amazing. It went in the living room, which we never used. When the silver tree came out of the attic, the cardboard nativity came out of the cabinet, and the Christmas stockings emerged from their carefully wrapped, moth ball filled box, Christmas could come.
My mom was the Charlie Brown to my grandmother’s Lucy. Remember when Lucy sent Charlie Brown off to find some Christmas spirit for their Christmas play? She demanded that he, “Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown, maybe painted pink.” Since my grandmother couldn’t find a pink Christmas tree, she settled for silver…and my mother hated it. The tree my mom loved was a towering but humble cedar tree, cut from someone’s farm on the outskirts of Memphis, which my father would buy off the back of someone’s truck for $10.00. Everything was allowed on the tree…from the ugliest ornaments that I had made as a child to the hand stitched ornaments we made together to the most lovely glass balls.
We lost at least one glass ornament every year, a victim of the hard tile floor in our family room, but those handmade ornaments stood the test of time. My sister still has one of the ornaments of the “only a mother could love” variety that my brother and I made one year. Blow up a balloon. Take string and dip it in glue and wrap it randomly around the balloon. Sprinkle with glitter. Lots of glitter. When the glue dries, pop the balloon and you have a really ugly sphere of string coated in glitter! I was so proud. And those things will never break. If you were to stomp on them, you’d only mash them a little. They are truly indestructible…and so very ugly.
There is nothing wrong with making our homes sparkle for Christmas. Nothing to be ashamed of in the decorations and the lights and the greenery. Beauty inspires us and comforts us. Beauty sustains us during these short days. I don’t mind the evening dog walks half so much when I can walk past the cheerful lights of my neighbor’s homes. But…if the beauty obscures the provocative and profound – even disturbing – truth of God’s inbreaking into our world, then the beauty has become a problem.
There is absolutely nothing pretty about Mary’s story. It’s heartbreaking and prophetic, but it’s not pretty. Mary is unwed, pregnant and poor. There isn’t anything that can protect her from the laws that would require her punishment. Joseph does what he can to keep things quiet, to protect her, but she knows it may not be enough. In her young wisdom, she leaves her home and seeks shelter with her distant cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth understands. Elizabeth offers welcome and acceptance and love, and it is enough to dispel the fear.
Theologian Debi Thomas (Journey with Jesus blogspot) suggests that this meeting between Elizabeth and Mary is a prototype for Christian worship. Elizabeth’s welcome of Mary is the welcome a faith community can and should be to anyone who comes to our doors, the acceptance and love that dispels fear. Elizabeth doesn’t make judgements about Mary’s condition. She doesn’t make assumptions about her life. She welcomes and accepts. And her welcome is confirmed by the movement of the baby within her. John leaps in the presence of his unborn cousin; he leaps in the presence of the God bearer.
But that is not all that is happening here. In these two women we encounter the richness of diversity: “Elizabeth, married to a priest, is established, secure and known to be ‘righteous.’ Mary, unwed and suspiciously pregnant, is socially the opposite. They also come from different ends of the spectrum of age and expectation,” writes pastor Paul Simpson Duke. (Connections, Year C., Vol. 1, p. 63) Elizabeth was too old to have a child, and Mary so young. “John,” writes Duke, “is the miracle after the ending; Jesus is the miracle before the beginning.” (Connections, Year C, Vol. 1 p. 63)
In this mystery, these women worship. They are blessed by one another’s empathy and encouragement. The older woman is strengthened to endure the remainder of her pregnancy. The younger woman is emboldened to live into the angel’s promise. They are blessed by the promise of community. Yet neither of these women is content to rest on blessing. When Mary sings, and it is very possible that this song is as much Elizabeth’s as Mary’s, they don’t sing sweet songs of praise.
They sing a song of justice.
When we encounter Mary in works of art, she typically is depicted as demur, modest, silent. Her face is calm, peaceful. Can you imagine being a poor, pregnant teenager and being able to summon up any of those emotions? God chose a poor, pregnant teenager because God knows a teenager in this situation can embody the injustice of the world. Teenagers know angst already. They know the frustration of being between childhood and adulthood. They know the longing and the fear, the dreams and the anxiety. So God chose Mary, and, after taking in the reality of her new life, Mary voiced the song of the prophets:
God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
This song is anything but sweet.
Which is why people – especially women – have embraced it in times of trouble. Because it is anything but sweet, people also fear it. In the early 1800s, Britain banned its use at evensong in India. Mary & Elizabeth’s song was banned in Argentina after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1983)—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the plaza.
Worship can be sweet and comforting, but if our worship is only sweet and comforting, we have fallen short of the prophet’s vision. Our worship, like Mary’s and Elizabeth’s must embrace the justice and mercy of God.
Author Rachel Held Evans, (https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent), wrote of this several years ago, envisioning the lyrics of the mothers’ song:
And so in this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung:
In the halls of the Capitol Building….
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In the corridors of the West Wing…
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
In the streets [where violence reigns]…
“He has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
Among [all who] who have survived assault, harassment, and rape…
“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence, and the faithful ministers of the gospel who at great cost are speaking out against the false religions of nationalism and white supremacy…
“God’s mercy is for those who honor God, from generation to generation.”
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new [kin-dom,] one that stands in stark contrast to every other [kin-dom]—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.
And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.
It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.
It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.
It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality. God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?
Amidst the lights and wrappings and ornaments, with tinseled trees and simple cedars, surrounded by so much prettiness, let us not forget the power and the beauty of mercy, forgiveness and love. Every tree needs at least one one ugly, handmade ornament – maybe made with string and glue and glitter – so we never forget the gritty reality of God’s arrival. It is the most grace filled news of all. God has come to our aid. God has remembered her mercy. Is there ever such a thing as too much hope?
Thanks be to God. Amen.