A Sermon on Mary and Elizabeth

Gospel: Luke 1:39-55

Women. Black Americans. Asian or Latinx immigrants to this country, or their children. Indigenous, Native American people who, yes, still live here. LGBTQ+ individuals. Any of these folks, were they preaching before you today, would make you deeply uncomfortable. So I’d better do my part for the only one of those marginalized identities I can honestly vouch for, echoing Mary.

But before I do, I want to make a point, that this is not just about one exceptional individual. Most of us don’t have trouble caring about one person and their unique situation. We like to help on the personal level. But it’s usually systemic change that we immobilize ourselves against, perhaps because it seems to be a threat to us keeping the lives we have. Perhaps we’ve done okay for ourselves in the current “system”. Yet when we are only charitable to individuals but don’t address large, vast injustice, we can miss how God most clearly enters our world, not just through individuals, but as a movement of people all acting as one Body.

This one Mary, mother of Jesus, didn’t have to be an exception, a paragon of virtue, with no inner struggle and a beatific facial expression to become the mother of Jesus. She was already the kind of person through whom God most clearly enters the world: a vulnerable one. One who is pushed to the margins by everybody else. God’s glory shows most clearly when God becomes incarnate through the lives of those we push aside or neglect.

Now, let’s talk in broader general terms. Motherhood is a wonderful and very, very hard experience. In Westernized cultures like ours, mothers are supposed to sacrifice and be the invisible props that hold us all together, without ever taking credit. It’s nothing but a major power grab in this country, to make laws about how women must give birth once impregnated no matter the circumstances, then fight insurance companies to pay off exorbitant hospital bills from giving birth, have no publicly supported child care, and probably even be passed over for career advancement for being a mother or taking time off to care for her children. Women – and especially women of color – were the most likely to lose jobs during the pandemic, and least likely to be able to return to work as the economy rebounds, because of a lack of quality child care. Talk about being vulnerable. Look to and actually see any mother in the midst of all this.

People of God, God’s word gestates and grows inside the bodies of people who hold no earthly power. But we don’t glorify the “lowliness.” There’s nothing good or godly about having no support or safety net. It is a reflection on how society – and all of us upstanding citizens – fail so many of our most vulnerable members. That vulnerability must be turned upside down – in great reversals like Scripture promises. For the sake of the ones we refuse to see, who are birthing God into the world.

God grows in them, large enough to overthrow all oppression. The Word Made Flesh grows inside Mary, whose consent alone allowed Jesus to be born into the word through a human mother. She already had enough weighing on her, yet she agreed to take on this too because she could recognize God at work in it, in her, even when no one else would. But her consent didn’t turn into JOY until her cousin Elizabeth rejoiced with her – saw Mary’s great mission too – and celebrated her. Elizabeth’s God-breathed words allow Mary not only to endure, but to have joy in the excruciating path she agreed to.

Now it’s not always fair to make direct analogies between Bible stories and our own lives, but Elizabeth looks a lot like the majority of people in ELCA congregations right now. An older woman, past any kind of typical child-bearing age, whom nobody looks at anymore. We sometimes treat older folks as invisible too. Yet Elizabeth speaks as a prophet, for God. God’s voice bursts forth through her. The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, and cries out through her. And her declaration releases Mary’s song, the Magnificat. The support of the older woman – surprisingly fertile with new life herself – helps the one with a heavy burden to find joy even in the midst of it, and not just personal joy, but calling down blessings on all who are burdened.

The miracle of incarnation – God living in our flesh – should change how we see and value other people AND our role in supporting each other. The greatest testimony to the Gospel – that God loves all people unconditionally – is borne among us by those who are oppressed, who have to scramble to survive, whom everyone else acts as if are invisible or ungrateful if they speak up. God lives in and through them. If you do not identify with Mary, powerless and vulnerable, then how can you instead act like Elizabeth to all the Mary’s in your sphere of influence?

This great reversal Mary sings about not only changes how we must see and value our neighbors, but it should really change how we understand God too! God became vulnerable and in need, instead of all-powerful, fierce and angry. Jesus was a newborn, totally dependent on a mother who was also incredibly vulnerable: without a home, in a place where they had no one to lean on. God gave up being all-powerful, to be one of us. What wouldn’t such a God do for love of you?

Where can we glimpse that love today? Water protectors, the descendants of Native Americans who were forcefully removed from their land by our government, still put their bodies in front of water cannons, police dogs and armed enforcers, to block oil pipelines that will inevitably leak – they always do – polluting the earth and the water for all around the region. In their bodies, the Gospel loves fiercely. Parents – disproportionately black and brown adults in this country and city – may work 2 or 3 jobs to make enough to feed, house and clothe their families. Medical professionals are running their own bodies into the ground to meet the continuous waves of covid patients. See God in them, giving up power, in order to love unconditionally. But can we see God in them, and just look away? How can we instead be Elizabeth to their Mary? Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit moving us to speak up and embrace all who bear God into the world.

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