December 12, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 1:39-56
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 he 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 his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

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Sermon: Blessed is she who believes

How blessed is she who believes.

There are many stories in the Bible where women play second fiddle to the men, but you certainly can not say that about the story of Mary and Elizabeth we read this morning. You might think that because the story is about birth it would have to focus on the mothers, but that’s not entirely the reason that the men are absent in the lesson today. There is also the issue of how men and women deal differently with stress around the holidays. And since this is a holiday story, women take center stage.

That insight into the story, an epiphany for me you might say, came earlier this week when I read a column by Dave Barry entitled: ‘Tis the season for men to get jittery. Barry writes: Although this is a festive time of year, it can also be a difficult and stressful time for a certain group - a group whose needs, all too often, are overlooked in our society. That group is: men.

This problem dates to the very first Christmas. We know from the Bible that the Wise Men showed up in Bethlehem and gave the Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, gold is always a nice gift, but frankincense and myrrh - at least according to my dictionary - are gum resins. Who gives gum resins to a baby? The answer is: men. The Wise Men, being men, didn't even START shopping for gifts until the last minute, when most of the stores in the greater Bethlehem area were closed for Christmas Eve. The only place still open was Big Stu's House of Myrrh.

Mary looked at the gifts - which were not wrapped, nor were they accompanied by cards - rolled her eyes, tossed the gum resins to the goats (which ate them) and said, "Next Christmas, we are going to have some gift-giving RULES." But the Wise Men didn't hear her, because by then they were over by the crib trying to teach the Baby Jesus to pull their finger.

This is basically how things stand today. At this point in the Christmas season, your standard woman already has purchased and wrapped thoughtful gifts for approximately 600 people. She also has purchased several thoughtful gifts for nobody in particular, so she will not be in the horrifying position of receiving a gift from somebody for whom she does not have a retaliation gift.

In contrast, your standard man has purchased zero gifts. He has not yet gotten around to purchasing an acceptable gift for his wife for LAST Christmas. He did give her something last year, but he could tell by her reaction to it that she had not been dreaming of getting an auto emergency kit, even though it was the deluxe model, with booster cables AND an air compressor. Clearly this gift violated an important rule, but the man had no idea what this rule was, and his wife was too upset to tell him. And now ANOTHER Christmas is looming, and this man, terrified that he will screw up again, has been wracking his brain for gift ideas for his wife. Nothing automotive this time - he won't make THAT mistake again! He's thinking Weed Whacker.

But he's not sure. He's a nervous wreck. A lot of we men are. That's why we buy gifts at the very last minute or, optionally, never. It's not that we're thoughtless jerks! Well, okay, thoughtless. But not jerks!

Now I don’t mean to stereotype men and women, after all, this is a congregation of the United Church of Christ and no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, we welcome you, even if you are a thoughtless man.

But Dave Barry aside, the story of Mary and Elizabeth is a story about two women, women about to become mothers, women who are asked to believe that God is present in their lives, women who are asked to believe that God will be present in the lives of their offspring. As Elizabeth says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

The specifics of Mary and Elizabeth are significant to their story, but first I’d like to consider how important the faith of every mother is to their child. I’d like to introduce this by playing a short song.

If We Ever Meet Again This Side of Heaven

Soon we'll come to the end of life's journey
And perhaps we'll never meet anymore
'Til we gather in heaven's bright city
Far away on that beautiful shore

If we never meet again this side of heaven
As we struggle through this world and its strife
There's another meeting place somewhere in heaven
By the side of the river of life

Where the roses bloom forever
And where separation come no more
If we never meet again this side of heaven
I will meet you on that beautiful shore

You probably recognized the singer there was Johnny Cash, and the song comes from his album “My Mother’s Hymn Book.” In the liner notes he wrote: “My mother had an old book called Heavenly Highway Hymns. She used to sit and play those songs in it – old church songs, country gospel songs, dozens of them – all the way through, over and over in her lifetime. My mother loved that book. It’s mine now, and it’s kind of dog-eared and ragged, a little bit like I am, and I love that book too.”

“They’re powerful songs,” Cash said, “my magic to take me through the dark places.”

There is something we could all use – a little mother’s magic to take us through the dark places.

Two expectant mothers meet – cousins, we are told, but at different stages in their lives. Elizabeth is of an age where she had given up hopes of conceiving a child and Mary still a young woman. Each has received a message from God that requires a response – either a fearful rejection or a faithful acceptance that through them the grace of God for all people will become embodied in the lives of their children. Do they know that each of their children will be asked to walk through some very dark places, that their children will not enjoy the comforts of life in a household with their own family, that they will be followed by the people as a beacon of hope and feared by the powerful as a threat to be eliminated?

What do they know as they greet one another and Elizabeth blesses Mary and Mary blesses God? Can they imagine how many mothers will be guided through the dark places for themselves and their children as say their prayer beads and remember the words spoken that day:
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

This is a pivotal moment in the Bible story, a pivotal moment in the human story. The child of Elizabeth in her old age, John, will be the last prophet of an era that is ending; the son of Mary in her youth, Jesus, will be the firstborn of a new one. This scene as presented by Luke is rich in images and language that looks back at the ancient story of Israel and looks ahead to the early life of the church. There is a lot to be read into and drawn out of this story. But for today I ask you to simply consider the faith of these two women, two mothers to be. Think of their hopes, their fears, their courage, their trust in God. Think of the mothers who sit in this congregation each Sunday and how they are praying for their children and how they too wish to impart a faith that will get them through the dark places.

How blessed is she who believes.

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