XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

Sisters in the Spirit

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Dec 16

Text: Luke 1:39-56

Two women—cousins. Two surprising pregnancies. Two extraordinary lives coming into the world—John and Jesus. This morning we hear two interwoven stories. One, commonly known as “the visitation,” tells of young Mary, heavy with child, travelling to the Judean hill country to visit her relative Elizabeth. It tells of Elizabeth’s greeting and of the babe—who is to be John-the-Baptist—leaping with joy in Elizabeth’s womb. Visitation has multiple layers of meaning. Most obviously, Mary travels to see Elizabeth. But also, John and Jesus (both in utero!) somehow recognize each other. Or at least, John-the-prophet recognizes Mary’s child. As Luke tells it, John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrives, carrying the baby Jesus within her.

The second story, called “the Magnificat” tells of Mary’s response to the news from the angel Gabriel, that she is to bear a son. Mary is full of praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she proclaims. In her humility, Mary recognizes that it is an extraordinary blessing to bring this life into the world. But her praise expresses so much more than personal gratitude. Her Magnificat also foresees the great reversals that will come in the fullness of God’s time. There is joy in the promise of justice and right relationship.

Mary’s joy springs from insight into what God has done and is doing for all the world—in scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty, and showing mercy to the people, Israel.

Two women, two stories. The visitation and the Magnificat are often read separately; often preached separately. But how evocative these stories are when read together! There is so much joy in Mary’s and Elizabeth’s shared experience—such warmth, tenderness and strength in their mutuality. In a sisterhood-is-powerful way—yes! And also, in a deeply spiritual, Christian way.

One writer notes, “God gives Mary and Elizabeth two things they each lacked: community and connection. God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies. Together they are known more fully, and begin to see more clearly, than they do as individuals.” (1)

In a this “visitation” Mary and Elizabeth recognize that their lives are connected, not only to each other, but to God’s promises for the whole world. For each of them, the story of “I” becomes a story of “we” and a story of God. It is a spiritual truth that our collective story is always greater than our individual narratives. The “glad tidings of great joy” that come in Advent is that we are not isolated in our experience, but deeply connected to each other and to God. God is with us, Emmanuel.

This is joyful good news. But many of us struggle to find joy in this season. Perhaps we are grieving or wrestling with depression, feeling lost, uncertain, forgotten or alone. Maybe we are feeling the pain of an old loss—even one that occurred years ago. Or we’re trying to figure out how to do family and be family amid the emotional complexities of divorce, re-partnering, estrangement from our families of origin, or simply the express desire to be with our “families of choice”—friendships and relationships that are life-giving for us. Or maybe we’re just navigating a torrent of work deadlines and holiday obligations and the stress is mounting.

How do we find joy in the midst of it all? The seasonal veneer of compulsory cheeriness does not help. It seems that we’re supposed to be feeling great—all full of merriment. Thanks be to God when we do find moments of great beauty, connection, and meaning in the festivities of the season. But rest assured that the compulsory veneer of cheerfulness is not at all what the gospel means by joy.

When the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, the Greek word Luke uses is “exultation” which gives it such a beautiful coloration. In the vernacular, “joy” may be simple emotion, fleeting and ephemeral. But exultation seems to express a deeper recognition of something holy and wonderful. This kind of joy runs deep. It does not gloss over suffering, but acknowledges and encompasses it, and lifts us up. So, if you are searching for joy this morning, come as you truly are, in all your complexity. Bring your full self and be present to God’s Spirit alive in you.

The power of the Holy Spirit is a major theme in Luke’s gospel and we see it at work in Elizabeth and Mary and their babies. When the Holy Spirit shows up, you know that God is about to do something wonderful. In Christian tradition, we often refer to the Spirit in feminine terms. And, according to the authors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament, “[a similar] concept came into later Jewish thought primarily through the depiction of the “Shekinah,” the feminine presence of God that dwells with Israel.” (2) The divine feminine. Talk about the power of sisterhood!

But how are we to be still enough to feel the Spirit stirring within us? How can we be quiet enough to hear glad tidings of great joy? We are flooded with urgent news at every hand. How, then, can we even hear good news above the din? In his essay, “This is a Time of No Room,” Thomas Merton wrote,

In the massed crowd there are always new tidings of joy and disaster. Where each new announcement is the greatest of announcements, where every day’s disaster is beyond compare, every day’s danger demands the ultimate sacrifice, all news and judgment is reduced to zero. News becomes merely new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the noise that went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it…News? There is so much news that there is no room left for the true tidings, the “Good News,” the Great Joy. (3)

Merton describes our present dilemma. Our lives are so flooded with the torrent of noise that there is no room for us to hear glad tidings of great joy. Yet somehow the spiritual practice of Advent is precisely this: to listen deeply for God despite our inner confusion and turmoil, despite the urgent insistence of unholy noise that swirls all around us.

This is what Elizabeth and Mary do. In her own deep listening Elizabeth discovers the Holy Spirit at work in her sister Mary and becomes one of the first prophetic voices of the gospels, calling out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Mary, too, makes room in her body and in her spirit. And, in making room for Jesus, Mary discovers joy.

So, let us take a moment to breathe. (Silence) Watch for the Shekinah- God with us. Listen for the heartbeat within. Feel for the insistent kick of new life, even now. Listen to your own heart. Listen to each other. And listen for God.

1) Michael S. Bennett, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 94.

2) Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettle, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 98.

3) Thomas Merton, “Christmas Meditation: The Time of No Room” https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2012/12/31/christmas-meditation-the-time-...

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...