Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Although I was only five years old, I remember going to the huge home in Glendale, California, where an unknown woman answered the door, invited us in and asked us to sit in the parlor, a word I didn’t understand. She said she would go find my Aunt Mary. No one was around as we sat quietly on formal furniture, while the woman climbed the stairs with the ornate wooden newel post and heavy railing and fancy balusters. It was some thirty years later that I had an “aha” moment when I discovered that it had been a home for unwed mothers. It finally became clear why my Aunt Mary was there by herself without Grandma or any other family members, and why she didn’t go home with us when we left.
I have no idea what story was told about my aunt’s sudden disappearance at the age of 16. Shame has a way of creating family secrets that can twist and distort family history. That story was never told.
Perhaps it is out of this piece of history within my own life that I latched on to the phrase in our text that says, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” When a story, like the nativity has become so sanitized, it is difficult to get underneath the story and experience the full drama of all the cultural rules and norms that have been broken. It’s hard to comprehend just how radical this story was and is.
When I was the Senior Pastor in Minnesota, there was a member of the congregation by the name of Jodie, upon whom we offered our blessings as she left Minnesota and headed for Berkeley for seminary. When it came time for her seminary internship, she ended up serving a church in Walnut Creek located in the East Bay. As I fully expected, Jodie was well received. However, something shifted when she became a part of the Worship Committee. As the committee brainstormed their ideas for wanting the decorations for Advent to fit the biblical story, they decided to take a different approach in order to help the congregation break through to the reality of the text.
Their Advent preparation began at the beginning of the parking lot, which is quite a distance from the church. They had signs pointing towards the sanctuary which read “This way to the Prince of Peace”. Upon entering the sanctuary, the chancel had been transformed. There was none of the usual green swags and wreaths. In their place there had been constructed a homeless shelter. There were scraps of wood and tin that was covered with a blue tarp. Underneath the shelter, were two sleeping bags, and a shopping cart. There was graffiti on the scraps of wood and metal that held the shelter together and trash was scattered around the site. Leaning against the shelter was a sign with the words, “Will work for food” painted in neon orange. On a galvanized trash barrel, the Advent Candles had been placed in old tin cans that had previously held peas and Campbell soup. The community, although surprised, was delighted with the creativity.
What the congregation was not prepared for was finding the same setting in their sanctuary the second Sunday of Advent. The wreaths and the greens were still not up. Clearly, the first Sunday had been enough. There was so much angst, that the adult education hour agenda was cancelled to talk about this new “edgy” Advent. A meeting was called. People were unanimous in their appreciation for Jodie, and they knew that they needed to be open to new experiences, however, they wanted the familiar. They didn’t want the raw version of the story…they wanted the cleaned up pretty story. They longed for their traditions. They counted on seeing the traditional greens, bows, candles, and swags.
The pastor discerned that the Worship Committee would move ahead with their plans and that this “edgy Advent” would not be aborted. Each Sunday the signs were moved closer to the sanctuary, symbolizing the movement of the journey.
On the third Sunday of Advent, a Christmas tree was added, and the youth of the church, turned the trash that was scattered around the homeless shelter into ornaments for that tree. And, again, the second hour for adults was cancelled in order to talk about people’s concerns and feelings. There were those who were angry and wanted it dismantled immediately. They wanted the return of the Curriers and Ives motif—what some of us would call the Martha Stewart look. There were those who were adamant about the fact that they had lost hope looking at the setting each week. During those weeks of Advent, I received regular calls from Jodie filling me in on each week’s experience. I listened to her feelings as the countdown to Christmas became more and more controversial.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, following the lighting of the Advent Candles, two worship leaders walked to the shopping cart, and began preparing it with blankets to become the manger. As a compromise, the homeless shelter was dismantled for Christmas Eve, but the shopping cart was allowed to stay.
In that Walnut Creek Church, that particular Advent is always referred to as the “edgy-Advent-year.” We can appreciate that the dissonance pushed the community in their waiting to see Advent in a far different—much more controversial and perhaps a more authentic light.
Luke’s Gospel presents a story of the powerful and the powerless. This is a story of those who carried the burden of taxes and those who demanded the taxes. It’s a story that has a backdrop of overcrowded tenements and refugee displacement and little children who cry themselves to sleep because of hunger.
To have some understanding of Mary, we have to rid ourselves of our art gallery images where she is draped in elegant blue gowns that could only come from the resources of an aristocratic moneyed family. I suspect that the truth was that being pregnant, she needed to get out of town as quickly as possible. She was living in an era when it would have been dangerous to be unmarried and pregnant for she risked being stoned to death.
Young Mary did what women have done for survival for generations…she reached out to her close woman friend. She needed Elizabeth…in the midst of what had to have been a shocking encounter with Gabriel, she needed a safe intimate place to talk about what she has experienced. She needs someone with heart. She needs someone who could hear her desire to trust God, while at the same time holding the fears that haunted her in the middle of the night: Would Joseph stand by her? Would her family stand by her? Would she end up destitute..or killed?
Meanwhile, Elizabeth has been holed up in her home seeing no one as she day by day takes in the reality of her aged body carrying new life. She needed a friend who could listen to her rant and rave about how God had never answered her prayers for a child when she was young and had the energy to chase after a toddler.
In the mystery of this story is the movement of the Spirit as the child leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary enters the house pregnant with the Christ child. What we are offered is two unlikely women, speaking as prophets.
During this time when Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah is unable to freely communicate with Elizabeth because of having been struck mute by the Angel Gabriel, Elizabeth has the gift of a trusted friend to walk with her. And Mary has Elizabeth to confide in with all the questions and relationship issues that have to be pressing in upon her. What better time to have support than for Mary in the first trimester of her pregnancy while she struggles with morning sickness, and for Elizabeth in the last trimester of her pregnancy. Both of these time periods offer their own unique challenges both physically and psychologically.
I believe that there is something important that happens for Joseph in this period of waiting while Mary has gone off to join Elizabeth. He may have needed this season of time to sift and sort through his feelings without having to see her.
Both Mary and Elizabeth are waiting with a sense of promise. There is strength in the shared waiting. It is the promise that allows them to wait while the Holy One is working in each of their lives. The writer of Luke’s Gospel gives Mary the role as spokeswoman for the Anawin (the poor ones).
One of the great gifts of our faith community is the capacity for members to experience the births in other people’s lives. Not all of us have given birth physically, for there are many kinds of birthing. Birthings can come in degree programs. Books have been written and published and we clearly define them as birthing. This whole community knows what it is like to celebrate the adoption of children into family’s within the life of this church who are now part of the community.
As with all birthings there are doubts and fears that come with the process. Can I finish this degree program? Will the baby be OK? Can I really give birth to this new job. Can I birth a new non-profit program? Can I truly regain my health. Can I learn to play this instrument. We all appreciate the birthing that happens when a song is written, or members comes together, like this morning, and bring a gift of music to the service. We need God and each other to remind us of the gifts, power and promise that is part of birthing.
I don’t care how many pre-birth classes couples participate in there is a certain degree of discomfort and pain that exists in giving birth. And, there is ultimate joy in encountering new life. However, what every parent will agree to is the fact that we do not control what is born. Many of us who birthed a child, thought the second birth would be familiar. Even if we knew in our heads that everyone is unique, we still get surprised at the radically different personalities and gifts that exist in our children.
In this collective season of waiting, we are in a womb like season. The Search Committee is working hard to listen to all of you and to name the strengths and values that are held by this church. They desire to be well versed in the church DNA. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a handle on how to talk about our community, because there is an element of mystery. The gift of Jesus is about God with us. And, what I am always moved to hear are the stories of transformation that are held in this community. Last Sunday I was deeply touched by the stories that were told by those in the New Members class. In the mystery of the Spirit’s movement, we heard how people have come to experience this community and are seeking a heart space…a place to belong.
Just as the edgy Advent ritual in the Walnut Creek church pushed them to have to go inwards to figure out why they were so frustrated, angry and disappointed….so we too need people who can walk with us in the waiting seasons of our lives. We need nudgers to move us out of stuck places. We need the loving presence of those who will speak truth to us. And, we need to have the courage to speak truth to the injustice that we see and experience in our world. Perhaps, just perhaps, Mary and Elizabeth mirror for us our own ordinary-ness. They both accepted God’s mission for them. Being obedient isn’t a gender issue played out in a quiet passive way. Obedience to God takes courage, and it takes friendships to sustain us.
This community has a strong future. In the midst of change, in the midst of losing loved ones from our community, we’re called to make room for that which holds an element of mystery. This interim season demands trust. It demands listening for the Spirits movement. We’re called to make room for the birth of something new that will come out of tending to our spiritual longings. We’re called to make room for new brothers and sisters who will bring their gifts to join with ours in saying “yes” to coming home to God’s love. We’re called to see poverty, disempowerment, injustice, and we are called to take action and to make a difference. And, most of all, we’re called to offer ourselves to God. We struggle to hold the paradox of life that maintains that there is both pain and joy in the birthing process. In this season of waiting, may God allow us to know what part of us, both individually as well as collectively, is struggling to be born? Where are we being pushed to shine the light into the darkness. May we be empowered to walk through the waiting to the delivery room as we step up to God’s mandate that we not only have compassion for ourselves, but also for our community and for our world. Amen.