Sermon originally preached on December 23, 2018 at North Star United Methodist Church in Nikiski, Alaska.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is their name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God’s has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to God’s descendants forever.”
I made a comment a few weeks ago, telling people to ‘ignore the mess’ when they walked in my house. I made an excuse about how my puppy likes to scatter his toys everywhere, which is true. But the point is that I was trying to hide my ‘mess’, and when it couldn’t be hidden any more, I brought it upon myself to feel shame, even though play sessions and the energetic spirit of Oakley is the last thing I’d ever be shameful about. Something about messiness just doesn’t sit well with most of our society.
Today, we read a story about a woman who society considers to be a mess, herself. Actually, not even really a woman. Mary, who is believed to be about 15 or 16 at this time, has just found out she is going to be a mother. And not just any kind of mother; an unwed mother. We all know that being an unwed mother is taboo in our world today, so let’s just try and imagine what it was like 2000 years ago. On top of it, Mary claims to be a virgin too. She probably was seen as the person you’d cross the street to avoid passing.
Mary’s situation is pretty messy.
The scripture we just read though, doesn’t highlight an interaction with Mary and someone who yells at her or calls her a liar or tells her she’s going to hell. This story is one that instead of bringing shame to Mary’s ‘mess’, which I’m using intentionally in quotations…instead of bringing shame, this story documents acceptance and radical welcome, honoring the peace that is brought when we affirm another’s humanity.
I’m struck that this conversation is between two women, and two pregnant women at that. The story begins when Mary went to see her relative, Elizabeth, after just finding out she was pregnant. Immediately, Elizabeth is filled with joy, and her baby starts kicking her, feeling the Holy Spirit at work in Mary’s life. Elizabeth didn’t ask questions about who the father was, or interrogate her, or tell her how irresponsible she was. Elizabeth told her that this ‘mess’ was worthy of welcome, and of celebration. And even more, this ‘mess’ was something holy.
By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectation. Instead of shaming Mary because she was ‘other’, Elizabeth brings peace and honor instead.
We all respond to messiness in unique ways. Thinking of ‘messy’ people, we might ignore them. Some of us might try and ‘fix’ them, or shame them, or look higher upon ourselves for not bearing that same ‘mess’. We lean into that discomfort, and instead of welcoming, we push them away. The separation leads to a relationship that is nowhere near peaceful.
Who are those ‘messy’ people for you or for us collectively?
Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is their name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God’s has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to God’s descendants forever.”
Mary teaches us today, that our ‘messes’ are worthy of radical welcome, because God blesses us, period. No matter what. And God has always done great things with those we see as other. God creates a new reality, and works with those society rejects and includes, to reveal a spirit of inclusion, of unconditional love for us today. What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today?
Elizabeth’s actions and words invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. And the story of Mary, the Mary who gave birth to perhaps the greatest gift we have, is a clear testament to the work God does in the lives of those we deem as ‘messy’.
Jesus did the same thing, seeing past the shamefulness society placed on situations like Mary’s situation, the ‘mess’, and turning to the reality of God’s love at work, everywhere and to everyone, always.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. As we know, tradition is for Christmas and Easter season to bring in different crowds than during our regular Sunday morning service. Our job, as folks here today, is to create an atmosphere of peace in our sanctuary. Our job is to offer hospitality, radical welcome, to whoever walks through these doors tomorrow, even if we can see their ‘mess’. Even if their ‘mess’ looks different than our own ‘mess’.
Will we listen and welcome, when people who embody God’s new reality show up at our door, or in these pews? Will we reflect the story of Elizabeth, and bring honor and dignity to the humanity of those visiting us for the first time, and those we haven’t seen in months? How can we create a spirit of peace tomorrow?
Creating a spirit of peace isn’t just a Christmas thing, but through this story, the birth of Jesus, and all the stuff that comes with it, details that wouldn’t necessarily be displayed in a nativity set or on a Christmas card…those things invite us to take welcome seriously. When we ask for peace, we ask for an ability to live alongside each other, respecting one another’s humanity and living in love. It sounds flowery and naïve to say out loud, but this is what God visions, in this story and throughout the life of Jesus.
As we leave today, may we not forget that radical welcome, and creating peace brought us an unwed teenage mother, and it brought us a baby, who became our savior. May we listen to the story and the relationship of these two women, whose bravery and acceptance brought forth dignity, and reigns as an example of Christ’s love for us. May we remember that the interaction of two women taught the world that if we judge people’s ‘mess’, we can’t have the miracles that God springs forth from it; we wouldn’t have baby Jesus. And may we remember that a mindfulness and a faith for the good of the greater world, mess included, brings peace to us this Advent season. Amen.
Holy God, thank you for the mess. Thank you for the ways you stir up in places we see as unlikely. Thank you for teaching us that you are everywhere. Move us towards radical welcome this Christmas, and move us to model the peace that your son Jesus will soon bring to the world. Amen.