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Conversation between Two Women - Sermon on Luke 1:39-55

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The encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is incredible on a number of levels. And what Mary has to say is amazing.  

Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The delivered sermon is often considerably different than the sermon notes which are included for convenience below.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

December 20, 2015  -  4th Sunday in Advent

"Conversation between Two Women".  Text is from Luke 1:39-55


Good morning to you my sisters and brothers in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God.

If the words to this morning's reading sounds familiar to some of you, well, it's because every Wednesday we sing it here during our Vespers service, right after our community meal.  And what we have in it is somewhat amazing, particularly in terms of scripture. 

It's something that happens all the time.  Women visiting one another, and talking about things. And in this case, pregnant women, friends, who love and admire one another, being there for each other. But this is not the kind of thing that holy scripture is usually about, which what makes it amazing here. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of scripture and am also a proponent of the usefulness of it...all of it, including the icky parts. Because there's something to be said for context and culture and the relationship of God and man even in those places where it appears that scripture runs counter to our belief in what a loving God entails. But you have to admit that our bible is a bit man-heavy. I mean, the number of significant women that exist is fairly minimal throughout scripture, and many of them don't actually have names.  

The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin MaryBut here we have not one, but two women having a conversation with one another. Let us forget for a moment that there are two other important figures represented here, one: the newly gestated infant in Mary's belly and the other, the leaping prophet in Elizabeth's, because what is key is that this is an interaction that does not involve men in the least bit and both women have a part to play and speaking lines. 

ow imagine for a second that a gospel writer chose to include this in the Gospel at a time when women were in most cultures anywhere from fairly subservient to men to entirely ignored to treated as property.  And here we have not one but two women leading us into this gospel. And it survived in scripture through two centuries of patriarchal scholarship and editing until the Bible was put together as we know it now, what a wondrous gift of the spirit that is for us today. 

But even deeper than that, these are not any ordinary women either. Because they are women who society had deemed shamed in one way or another.  First we have Elizabeth, who, while it is not recounted here, was a woman well into her late years, already past child-bearing age and childless, a woman of no status in Jewish society, who only through the miracle of God's grace is now pregnant. 

But also Mary herself, who is an unmarried woman with child. And that in itself is such a place of dishonor in Jewish society. Any woman, or girl, really, as we know Mary was, could have been cast out, stoned possibly, at the very least disowned and dishonored by her family. 

And yet despite their own lowliness of stature, and the fact that they are mere women our gospel writer places both these women in places of honor. Which must give some particular importance to the place that this reading holds.  Elizabeth sings how the child leaps in her womb as Mary calls to her from her door. The holy spirit fills her and she blesses the other woman, and cannot understand why she of all women were chosen to be greeted by the mother of this wondrous child. Elizabeth knew that this woman, who was not even showing would bear a great child. 

And Mary responds in that lovely hymn we call the Magnificat. From now on all people will call her blessed. And God's mercy is for all who are in awe of him. Mary's voice declares how great and powerful God is. We hear Mary's words devoted in that song of wonder and salvation. That the child she would be born would be the savior of all of God's people. 

It is in Mary's hymn that we approach this season with a reminder about God's promise of mercy. Because the people of Israel were living in a time where there seemed to be very little mercy. Kings and conquerors were reaping the harvest put out by the common folk and those conquered people had no means of seeking justice. This promise of mercy was one that many people could understand at the time of Christ, living as they did, and it was one that the early Christians longed for. Coming on the humble lips of this blessed woman... a child herself, how great this feeling this advance knowledge that the savior was coming from her own body. And how great her faith and how sweet the mercy that she felt from the Lord her God. 

And what is mercy, after all. When I think of the word mercy, the first thing that comes to mind is the word, clemency. The thing about working with lifers and three-strikers at San Quentin is that because of the judgement on them due in some part to the nature or extent of the crimes these people have been convicted of, they have or are going to spend a rather large percentage of their lives in prison. Release is not always expected. Because I go in and work with people who attend programs, I'm working with men who have been doing groundwork being integrated back into society, and often lifers have some amount of time they spend behind bars when they start to go before the board and get hearings.  And so these men expect that they've become model citizens and find out that some people at state level have decided that for whatever reason they're not. It can be disappointment. So how does one find mercy in a merciless system? 

I was just yesterday asked about forgiveness and where does one find the capacity to forgive. It reminded me that I work with men every week, some of whom have at some point in their past have done some pretty violent and horrendous things. I don't expect that everyone can find it in their hearts to forgive, not the state. But I can find mercy in myself to treat them with dignity, remembering that we have a system that doesn't know how to deal with crime and doesn't know how to look at circumstances and only understands punishment and takes no account for redemption. How can I not show mercy and compassion toward others. 

I need mercy myself. I fail at life sometimes, and I have situations that go beyond my control and I need to know that I am deserving of mercy. I need mercy and I need to extend mercy to others. And I know that in these times in this world, when we find ourselves struggling to understand what in the world is going on around out there, and why we don't have the job we want, cannot afford our housing, struggle in our relationships, maybe even struggle to find a place to sleep, we need a moment's mercy and the understanding that we are all of us worthy of it. 

Mary sang out a promise, that God's mercy extends to all of his people, that God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.  We have in this promise a meaning that is greatened because it comes in the context of this unlikely conversation between these two humble women, brought low by their circumstances in life but also blessed above others because what God has chosen for them to do.  

And this one, Mary, who is admired above and beyond all the other saints we have before us is gifted by our remembering the words of her Magnificat, proclaiming the good news of a merciful and mighty God who is giving us a savior that we may all of his children know his mercy and forgiveness. This song of good news is one we can hold with hope and expectation as we go forth into this holiday season and new year to come. 

Amen.

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