“Overturning All Social (and Spiritual) Expectations” – September 17 sermon

(Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56) 

When I was 19, I moved from Lubbock, Texas to Nashville, TN.  This was no ordinary move – I wanted to transfer to Belmont University to study the Music Business.  This move took a lot of convincing for my parents and after several low down and dirty “discussions” – we made it possible.  Moving to Nashville was a leap of faith – I had never been to Nashville, never visited the school – didn’t really know a soul – but I knew with every ounce of my body that it was where I was called to be.  So the time comes for the big move.  My dad helps me caravan my belongings and we arrive in Nashville at about 9 AM on a Sunday morning.  We decide to get some breakfast at a local restaurant.  Now of course all the good people of Nashville are getting ready for church and the local clientele of this establishment had obviously just gotten off work. Third shift workers of EVERY variety.  Needless to say there were an interesting group of God’s children here.  And in the back of my mind – I’m thinking “my dad is going to leave me – all alone -in this city in about two hours.”  No words were exchanged but perhaps seeing the fear on my face my dad says the following comforting words “Well, you’re the one who wanted to come here!”

My response was of course “I know.”  I didn’t want my dad to know how terrified I was.  While I did not feel terrified moving to Richmond this week – regardless of your age and life circumstances, change can be difficult and overwhelming.

It is from this place of change and overwhelming-ness – that I want us to enter our story for today.

Mary, who we are told is a virgin and engaged to Joseph, has just been told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and give birth to a son. Now, on any ordinary day that one finds out they are pregnant – it is BIG news.  Whether it is expected, welcomed or a Holy Spirit surprise – It is exciting and enthralling. It is stressful. It is overwhelming. It means your life will change dramatically. But add to that, the caveat that you’ve been told you are pregnant by an angel and when you have yet to be intimate with your betrothed.  Oh, and your kid is going to be the Son of God. That’s a lot to deal with.  That’s a lot of change and challenge.  Even in this time and place of the 21st century, having a baby at such a young age and out of wedlock, still comes with a certain amount of ..judgment. But in Mary’s time – it was a potential death sentence.

We are not told why Mary goes to see Elizabeth.  As an unwed, scared pregnant teen wondering how this news will be received, I imagine Mary goes to Elizabeth to seek sanctuary and a much needed a confidant.

As soon Elizabeth, hears Mary’s greeting – something extraordinary happens.  Elizabeth, who is 6 months pregnant, is filled with the Holy Spirit as the baby in her womb leaps! It is in this moment that Elizabeth knows exactly the news Mary has yet to tell her and she bestows upon Mary a blessing:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”

Elizabeth overturns all social expectations when she greets Mary in this way. Truth is, Mary might expect to be ostracized and shamed.  I mean what will the neighborhood association think when Elizabeth welcome her relative for after such questionable behavior?  Elizabeth has reputation to protect.  But perhaps Elizabeth doesn’t do this because she knows from her own experience the pain of such exclusion.  In her culture, a woman’s primary purpose in life is to bear children, and until recently, Elizabeth spent a lifetime being barren wife and treated as a failure.

Mary’s pregnancy could have brought her shame, but because of Elizabeth’s kindness, compassion and radical hospitality, it brings Mary joy and honor.  Further, it sets the stage for the social and religious reversal of a New Beloved Community that Jesus ushers in.  By welcoming Mary, Elizabeth practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to prostitutes and sinners. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.

Elizabeth’s words and actions invite us to reflect on our own openness as individuals and as a Church to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. What is God doing through unexpected people in our community today? Where is God at work through people whom our neighbors and fellow church members often exclude or treat as shameful? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?

I would like to think YES! After all, we are people of faith that strives to walk in the ways of Jesus.  But also because this congregation has adopted a number of WE STATEMENTS

We . . .

  • Recognize the richness of human experience and varied approaches to a faithful life
  • Encourage, challenge, and support one another to discover, live, and be transformed by Christian faith
  • Set an “open communion” table each week welcoming all who desire to respond to Christ’s invitation to a table of grace and mercy
  • Engage our community and world through a lived faith that responds to the needs of our environment and all living things with compassion, the potentials of restorative justice, peace, and hope

These statements inform our community, and are a reminder to us, that we are willing to always work to see the possibilities in God’s immense vastness and strive to respond with YES!

Like Elizabeth and Mary, I believe that SSCC is pregnant with great things. I believe we are at an Advent. But Advent isn’t just about birth – it is about preparing. We have work to do.

I want you all to look around this sanctuary.  Take a look at all these people you know and love.  Can you see the face of God? Now I want you to look at all the empty spaces. In the months and years ahead, these spaces will be filled with new faces. They probably won’t look like you. They too will be the face of God.  They won’t think like you or act like you. But they are the face of God.  They might be artists and musicians.  They may be covered in tattoos. They too are the face of God.  They could be students or factory workers. Their native tongue may not be English. They may not have citizenship or even the right documents to be in this country. They too are the face of God.  They might be gay or transgendered. They might be a person of color.  They too are the face of God.  They might be unwed and pregnant.  They might be searching and questioning.  They too are the face of God.

There are people in this community seeking refuge for a place where they desire so desperately to be accepted just as they are. They are seeking a place to be loved, where joy and honor will be bestowed upon them simply because they are a child of God.

How much discomfort are we willing to endure? Are we willing to risk our reputations? How much change are we willing to accept?  How far are we willing to stretch ourselves in order for God’s love to be known?

May we stand by our We statements. May we stand by our YES to follow in the ways of Jesus.  Let us keep practicing the same radical welcoming and hospitality that Elizabeth shows Mary and Jesus shows each of us!




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