I was lucky that I didn’t have my aunt Beulah Ritter as a teacher in the 6th grade. Everyone else in my family had her (including my brothers, and my dad) but somehow I escaped that fate worse than death. She was tough. She would make kids stand at the blackboard with their nose in a circle all day as punishment for acting up in class. When kids weren’t paying attention she would bean them with an eraser. The worst thing was to argue with her. She was never wrong. I just remember one family get together at my grandma’s farm when she announced that pigs wouldn’t eat tomatoes. I argued that they would. She insisted that they wouldn’t. So I decided to put the theory to a test, gathered up some tomatoes, went out to the barnyard, through them over the fence, and they ate them. I came back and told her plainly she was wrong; pigs do eat tomatoes. It didn’t make any difference to Mrs. Ritter. She had already made up her mind. You may have heard the expression, “I know what I know, so don’t confuse me with the facts.” I always think of Aunt Beulah when I hear that.
One day, during recess, some of us decided it would be fun to sneak up to the bell tower – something that was forbidden, probably because it was a really old building and kind of dangerous up there. But it seemed like a challenge to us. It wasn’t easy. We had to sneak around to the back of the building, under a fence, through a basement window with no latch, through the furnace room, crawl though a section between the walls, go above the gymnasium ceiling, up a closed stairway to the bell tower. It took us 15 minutes. We opened the door, and who do you suppose was standing there? Beulah Ritter. How did she know? She said “Your father tried this when he was your age.”
My father’s name was Otho. I loved my dad. He taught me some things, but like all fathers, he wasn’t perfect. One of his outstanding features, for which he is remembered, is that he was a little “dutchy.” You know that term? I looked it up. It means “ thrifty, economical, frugal, prudent, stingy, careful, cheap, close-fisted, penny-pinching, preserving, scrimpy, chintzy.” Yeah… that was my dad. Otho got it naturally. My grandmother used to pick up tips on the tables on her way out of the restaurant. I understand why – she raised her children during the Depression, and to her dying day she was sure that it was coming again. So, when she died, we found all these dresses and blouses and other clothing people had given to her over the years, still in their packages, neatly stacked in the drawers. She never used them, thinking the time would come when she would need them; but of course, by then, they were all brown around the creases. So my dad learned that naturally. Otho was so close fisted that they used to say about him that he squeezed the nickel so tight, he made the buffalo poop… sorry, that’s what they said.
So, whether we know it or not or whether we like it or not, we are a product of our history. So left all on my own, I can be a little dutchy myself. So you can imagine what it was like to marry into a family that is completely the opposite. My wife is generous to a fault. Her married name was Ditto. D_I_T_T_O. And all the Dittos were like that. The first time we went out to eat with her extended family, all the men were fighting over who was going to pay the check. It took me a while, honestly, to figure out that they all WANTED to! She used to look over my shoulder to see what kind of tip I’m adding to the bill when I pay for a meal. So when I get a little close-fisted and penny pinching, she calls me Otho. “OK, Otho.” She says. And I am supposed to catch the drift. And usually I do.
Whatever the trait, we have a lot of our family in us. Otho, my father, and Retha, my mother, live in me. And that, simply put, is a human illustration of what I think of when I think of Incarnation. God Incarnate. God in human flesh. When people looked at Jesus, they saw what God is like. God is great, God is good, and so is Jesus. God is merciful and God is forgiving, and so is Jesus, in some way that is more true than they saw in anybody else. God is just and God is loving, and so is Jesus. Jesus is just like God, they said. Then finally, they said, Jesus is God.
And I think it took a while for that to sink in. It wasn’t until the 5th Century that the Christian Church finally put together the whole doctrine that many people today take for granted. At the time though, it was a very theologically charged subject, with lots of alternative views and controversy. And as time went on, the church began to express a growing view of Jesus… first as Kurios or Lord (as the Apostle Paul did in the early First Century), Jesus as Messiah and Son of God (in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, around A.D. 64), Jesus as Savior of the whole world (as the Gospel of Luke describes around 70 A.D.), and by the time the Gospel of John is being written, sometime around the end of the First Century, Jesus is described as the “I AM” – the very nature and being of God, the very Word of God made flesh, existing from the beginning of time.
Over the next 4 centuries, it took 7 ecumenical councils to agree on the idea that Christ has both a fully human and fully divine nature, and the wording caused the first big split in the church between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Church.
But we don’t have to be an expert in all that history and theology to understand that complicated doctrine – the preexistent divine Logos, the second hypostasis of the Trinity, existing in hypostatic union, conceived in Theotokos – all that stuff – to get it, to understand and experience the Incarnation. The witness of the church has always been that God, in Christ, is present and at work in our lives and in the world. And that is enough. And that is profound.
In our scripture passage today, Luke presents the idea at the very beginning of his story; in the very conception and birth of Jesus. Picking up the story from last Sunday, when the angel came to Mary to announce that she would give birth to a son, and when that happens, she goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, for a meeting of the moms. Two expectant mothers, one old, one young. One was six months along; the other, newly pregnant. And the fact that they were expecting was well, unexpected! Both of them were pregnant when really neither one of them should have been, under normal circumstances. But these circumstances were anything but normal. What was happening was much better than normal. They’ve both got these miracle pregnancies in common.
And so this is where we pick up the story today. Mary goes to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she enters the house, and she greets Elizabeth. And when she does, the sound of her greeting is picked up by baby John, in the womb, and he does a joyful little dance!
So John leaps, and Elizabeth too is filled with the Holy Spirit and starts to get excited. She tells Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It is the season of weird greetings for Mary.
Four unlikely prophets gathered on the front step of Elizabeth’s home, two of them not even born yet. The other two prophets are women, women with names and stories, women with voices and something to say, or in Mary’s case, something to sing.
Women and babies: were definitely not “at the top of the heap,” here, especially not when there’s an actual priest in the house, Zechariah, a professional, licensed and learned, knows-what-he’s-doing expert in matters of faith. Ironically, though, Zechariah is the very one in this scene without a voice, literally, since he’s been struck speechless during his own angelic visit. The stage is set, then, for us to have the rare opportunity to hear from the women and children for a change. And what a change they dream of!
Barbara Brown Taylor uses her religious imagination to re-create this scene in ways that are poignantly human and full of insights that you might miss if you rush too quickly through this wonderful little story. No one knows with certainty, of course, why Mary sets out immediately on a long and undoubtedly dangerous trip to see her relative, Elizabeth. We’re left to wonder, and to imagine, with Taylor, that perhaps a frightened Mary looks for reassurance from Elizabeth, an older and trustworthy person in her life.
Maybe we would say today that Elizabeth is a kind of mother-figure to Mary, or a spiritual mentor? Mary seems to need both, and perhaps a protective figure as well. After all, you heard Susan say last week that Mary was in danger of being executed, just because she was pregnant out of wedlock.
In her sermon, “Singing Ahead of Time,” Taylor evokes Mary’s plight, alone and disadvantaged in the system: She writes, “What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or at least an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child really is God’s. Now leave the poor girl alone.'” But the young girl doesn’t have to explain her situation to Elizabeth, or ask her questions in search of answers, or even to ask for acceptance. When Mary sees her much older cousin, Taylor imagines, she sees a “gorgeous” woman, “so full of life that it is hard to see much beyond her joy. Is it any surprise, then, that in her relief and joy, Mary begins to sing?”
She does. She sings an elegant prayer, the Magnificat is a spontaneous outburst in song of praise for God’s marvelous deeds in the lives of all who are marginalized or downtrodden.
My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has been mindful
of the humble state of God’s servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is God’s name.
50 God’s mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 God has performed mighty deeds and has
scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 The Holy has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 The Almighty has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as the Lord promised our ancestors.”
Isn’t that profound? An expression of joy at God’s promises kept, a celebration of the tables being turned, or overturned: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are brought down, and the hungry are fed. God remembers the people, and the promises God has made to them. What a powerful text for every heart hungry for good news!
“She is no longer singing the song; the song is singing her,” Taylor writes, and this teenager is transformed into “an articulate radical, an astonished prophet singing about a world in which the last have become first and the first, last.”
When God shows up. When God incarnates in human life.
Scholars agree that this wasn’t just a My-God-is-stronger-than-your-god” song. It wasn’t a call to violent uprising or bloody vengeance, either, then or now, even though it was seen as “subversive”–and banned–by the authorities in Guatemala in the 1980’s. All sorts of trouble can start when the people get their hands on the Bible. Maybe the governmental authorities in Guatemala were just paying more attention than most of us do, as we sing our hymns. What, for example, do our Christmas carols really mean, when they sing about Jesus and the coming rule of God’s righteousness? What is all of that about?
It’s true that things aren’t as they should be in our age, either. The church is still called to proclaim God’s challenge to the Empire, whenever that order requires or results in the suffering of the poor; the oppression of the innocent. As long as millions of children go to bed hungry or homeless or afraid each night, there are tables to be turned, if we mean what we sing in this year’s Christmas carols.
Wouldn’t it be something if our Christmas dreaming led us to begin the New Year with a new vision for our culture and economy, one of generosity and abundance? We all long for a time when suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done. Mary had the nerve and the imagination in that moment to claim that future for herself and her people.
Wouldn’t it be something if we could see God showing up, if we could recognize the Incarnation of Christ where we live, work, and go to school? Would it make a difference?
There is a story told about a famous monastery which has fallen on hard times. Once a great order, its many buildings had been filled with young monks, but now it was nearly deserted. Visitors no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts. It was just a matter of time until their community would die out.
On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. No one ever spoke with him, but the monks felt somehow assured by his prayerful presence.
As the leader, the Abbot of the monastery agonized over the future, it occurred to him to go visit the rabbi. Perhaps he could offer some word of advice. So one day after morning prayers, the Abbot set out to visit the rabbi.
As he approached the hut, the Abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. And the rabbi motioned the Abbot to enter.
They sat there for a moment in silence, until finally the rabbi said: “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts. You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you this teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that no one must say it aloud again.”
The rabbi looked straight at the Abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.” For a while all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without a word.
The next morning, the abbot called his monks together in the chapel room. He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods”, and that after he told it his teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that the Messiah is among us!”
In the days, and weeks, and months that followed, the monks pondered this riddle, and wondered what it could mean. The messiah is among US? Could he have possibly have meant one of us here at the monastery? If that is the case then which one of us is it? Do you suppose that he meant the Abbot? If he meant anyone then he must have meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows and respects Brother Thomas’ keen spirituality and insight.
Certainly he could not have meant brother Elred. Elred gets very crotchety at times. But, when you look back on it, Elred is almost always right, often VERY right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. Maybe Phillip is the messiah.
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be the messiah.
As time went by there was a gentle, whole-hearted, human quality about them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They lived with each other as people who had finally found something. But they prayed and read the Scriptures together as people who were always looking for something.
It so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the beautiful forest and monastery. Without even being conscious of it, visitors began to sense a powerful spiritual aura. They were sensing the extraordinary respect that now filled the monastery. Hardly knowing why, people began to come to the monastery frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the older monks. After a while, one asked if he could join them. Then, another and another asked if they too could join the Abbot and older monks. Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving order, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
The Messiah is among you.
The Incarnation, this embodied presence of God, bids us not only to remember God’s descent into a dirty stable in Bethlehem, but to keep ourselves awake to the reality of God’s descending upon the thresholds of our own lives. The Incarnation continues to sound the consequence of this mystery: Keep yourselves clothed in readiness, for Christ is near.