God in Each Other
"From Generation to Generation", Week 4 of a 4-week Advent season of sermons, preached Dec 18, 2022 at the 9:30am Worship
It’s the fourth and last week in Advent, and our series called “Generation to Generation.” We are grateful to Sanctified Art for their help imagining this series and offering prayers, liturgies, song suggestions, and more.
The series title, Generation to Generation, comes from a line in Mary’s song we will read today, “God’s mercy is for those who fear God, from generation to generation.” It’s meant to remind us God is great and worthy of our worship and awe, and this God is always present, in the lives of those who came before us, with us here and now, and beside those who come after us.
Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, and Elizabeth excitedly welcomes her, and lets her know she too is pregnant just as the messenger told Mary. Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord as Luke imagines Mary’s response to Elizabeth and the world…
Scripture Luke 1:46-58
46 And Mary[f] said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowly state of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on, ALL generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name;
50 indeed, God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
51 God has shown strength with God’s arms;
God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has come to the aid of God’s child Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)
Sermon We See God in Each Other
I remember, almost three years ago, coming through the threshold of this church for the first time, having the Pastor Nominating Committee welcome me and walk beside me through the doors, down the hallways, and into the sacred spaces of this congregation. I was the new one here, the outsider, the southerner, the guest, the interviewee, the stranger. The PNC - Lanny, Charlie, Betsy and Paul, Ed, Terri, Doug, Sarah, Deanne and Olivia, and Abbi – they shared so authentically with me. They asked great questions and listened intently. They reminisced lovingly about the past of this church and dreamed about its future, and they didn’t flinch too much when I asked and dreamed right back.
I’ll be honest, I was scared. I could tell this was an older congregation. The number of people was stable but every pastoral transition hurts and changes peoples’ feelings about church. Most of the staff, save Caitlan, had been here a while and I was told they were already talking about retiring themselves. Financially, the budget didn’t seem big enough for two full-time pastors, but the reserves were pretty good. I especially noticed, by looking over the 10-year history through the denomination’s website, the number of younger people had been fading for a while, and then in 2020, the church had a core of youth but not many children behind them. This isn’t Atlanta with 4 million people, or Athens with 400 thousand. This is Kent and northern Queen Annes Counties, so maybe 40,000 people total, not huge and overflowing with children and families who WANT a church but don’t already have one. So, I was scared.
If we do this, say yes to one another, can I help lead them back to growing an all-age, fun-spirited, playful powerful congregation of God-centered worship, authentic connection, and sacrificial service? Or, will the grief of transitions and the weight of traditions make growing or changing too hard?
Do you know what sealed it for me and pushed me through the fear? Our conversations, host and guest, had authenticity, and hope, and joy. The PNC laughed… They laughed at themselves and with each other, and teased me and laughed with me. It was a playful group, and I saw in them what I believe every church needs, a spirit of hope, a willingness to risk, a dash of daring and playfulness. When a people believe they can make a difference in the world for God, and when people decide to enjoy risking and daring to make that difference, miracles happen.
When Mary walks through the threshold at Elizabeth’s, she too is afraid. She is on the precipice of a big, scary transition. She is greeted by Elizabeth going through her own big change, with a big smile, a big hug, and words of hope and joy about something new and beautiful happening in both of them. What lies ahead for both of them will be hard. They will be giving birth to something new and unexpected. The children they bring into this world will break tradition, will transition religion and faith from temple centered to God-centered, from law centered to grace-centered, from money and power centered to service and sacrifice centered. Facing those changes, they both have every right to be afraid. Still, Elizabeth is excited and hopeful, daring and playful with Mary, and Elizabeth’s energy and hope are so contagious, they press the fear back down to size in Mary.
What we read today is called the Magnificat, because Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Some just call it Mary’s song. We sense in Mary’s song hope, daring, and defiance. The fears she had before, they aren’t gone. She is still afraid. She is an unwed teenage mother in a culture that stones women and girls to death for being pregnant out of marriage. She will be pulled with her fiancé, if he doesn’t discard her, to Bethlehem to be “registered.” There are only TWO reasons to be registered, to count for war, and to count for taxes. Mary is a poor, immigrant, female in an empire where money, citizenship, and power are what matter. Mary’s fears are not gone any more than the wars and taxes and threats outside are gone. But once Elizabeth welcomes her, encourages her, she sings anyway. She turns on her heels and sings back at the world with defiance.
Here's my modern paraphrase of Mary’s song:
“My soul is focused and zoomed in on the Lord, and my spirit is laughing,
because God sees me as special despite how anyone else sees me.
I will be remembered, and people will call me blessed, because God is doing something miraculous in me.
This is the God who scatters people too proud of what they’ve done.
This is the God who brings down those who sit high and mighty in power seats.
This is the God who lifts up the low, and feeds the hungry, and spends the wealthy people’s monies to do it.
This God helps, and keeps promises, and shows mercy,
And this God will always do this, from generation to generation, forever.”
It doesn’t sound like it, but Mary is still afraid, but now, with the welcome, encouragement, and hope from Elizabeth, Mary doesn’t just say… she SINGS “about dethroning the powerful and lifting up the lowly, (about) disrupting broken systems and generating a new world.”
For those like Mary, desperate for justice and hope, and with less to lose than many of us, her song has been a rallying cry. For example, the Magnificat has been an important symbol for anyone seeking justice from oppressive regimes. Around the second World War, German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung. Even now, Argentina are playing France in the world cup. But back in the 1970s, during the Dirty War in Argentina, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo used Mary’s words to publicly protest the disappearance of their children. Throughout generations, Mary’s words have been a rallying cry for those deemed “lowly” or “outcast.”
Pause a moment, and think back through your own lives. Do you remember a threshold moment? Like mine coming through these doors, or Mary entering through Elizabeth’s, can you remember a moment in your life when you would step through, and everything would change? How afraid were you? What other feelings did you feel? Who were the people who greeted you and supported you at that threshold? What do you remember they said and did for you there? Like the PNC did for me, or Elizabeth did for Mary, were they hopeful, excited, encouraging? What happened to your fear in their presence?
Or maybe, it's easier for you to remember a time when you were the one welcoming a person in transition. Do you remember why they appeared in your life, the change they were facing, the fears and hopes they were wrestling with as they attempted to digest the change coming upon them? What do you do and say to them? What did God give you in those moments that you didn’t keep for yourself but gave away to the ones before you who needed reassurance and hope?
This Advent, this Christmas season, I want to invite each of you to imagine the threshold that lies before you. You’ll know what it is because it’s a bit scary. There’s a promise of God attached, but its new and different, and you aren’t all that comfortable thinking about it, or talking about it. It feels risky. Here’s my words to you, hear Mary’s words, God is with you. God has you and will guide you and keep you through it.
And then, when you hear this, notice how the fear doesn’t evaporate. It just changes. You’ll still be afraid because what lies ahead will be different, and probably hard. But it will make a difference. It will change the world somehow for the better. Your change will help others. Your daring will encourage others. Your commitment to justice and peace will comfort and inspire others. Your service and sacrifice will reassure others this God loves them too, and is calling them too, and is with them from generation to generation.
Let’s face the fears. Let’s find the hope. Let’s reassure one another. And let’s change the world until it all looks like Mary sang, and like her son Jesus imagined.
Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.