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"Holy Hopes" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 9, 2018

posted Dec 24, 2018, 8:38 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Years ago, I adopted a rule for movies: I don’t watch films in which the gay guy dies.  I decided on this rule years ago after watching one particular movie, Yossi and Jagger, a 2002 film by Israeli director Eytan Fox about soldiers on the border with Lebanon.  Jay and I started watching it late one night, but he’s not one for subtitles after a long day at work. But somehow the subtitles had the opposite effect on me; reading also concentrated me on the visuals of the film, drew me deeper than if I only half listened to the dialogue.  So while he went to bed, I kept watching as this amazing story unfolded of these soldiers and the hidden love between two of them, Yossi and Jagger. Throughout the film, Jagger’s love transforms Yossi. And then, in the last few minutes of the film, an attack by militants claimed the life of Jagger, leaving Yossi bereft.  I was utterly unprepared for this. In tears, I woke Jay up, devastated by grief; in the morning I made my rule: no films with gay guys dying. I’ve kept to it: avoiding every Brokeback Mountain in order to watch every adventure of Hurricane Bianco, the drag queen superhero of several recent films.

For a while I thought myself unique, but then I learned about the Bechdel Test; a test which asks if a work of fiction or film has at least two named women who talk together about something other than a man.  This seems like a low threshold, but only about half of all films meet this criterion.

Of course, if we applied this test to scripture the result would be even worse.  Many strong women can be found in our sacred stories - Deborah, leading the Israelites to war; Ja’el, defending herself from assault; but even when their stories lie side-by-side these women don’t talk to each other.  The only Old Testament exception that I can think of is Naomi and Ruth at the beginning of their story. In the New Testament we have just one story too - Mary and Elizabeth. A thousand sacred pages and only these two conversations between two named women talking about something other than a man.

At least we read of Mary and Elizabeth every year!  And this year, as I prayed about this story, I came to see the spiritual lessons in this story of friendship and hope between Mary and Elizabeth.

I’m struck first by the overall movement of the story between the three scenes we heard Katie read this morning.  First, alone, Mary learns of her pregnancy. Then, she goes to see Elizabeth. And with Elizabeth, Mary sang of God’s goodness, the Magnificat.

There are many ways to imagine that first scene.  We could portray it dramatically and dangerously - the male angel breaking in on the vulnerable Mary, a man suddenly appearing in her bedroom.  But I think of this story differently. In part because, in my experience, men who leap through the air wearing feathers… well, “angel” is just Hebrew for gay.

But even more because this story feels more like an interior monologue.  Mary might have retold it as if an angel burst onto the scene, but I think it really happened in the quiet recesses of her mind, in the silences in which she felt her body changing, in a strange confidence that flooded her heart, telling her, “do not fear.”

And so, Mary wondered, “could it be true?”  With this question she went off to see her relative Elizabeth, wanting to know from her, “do you think it’s true?”  And then with Elizabeth, Mary comes to say, “I know it’s true.”

Read this way the scenes take us from the intimacy of our deepest thoughts, to conversation with a close friend, to a public proclamation.  And, in a way, these stages parallel how many deal with pregnancy: first the very intimate news, then shared more widely in later trimesters, and made public in the arrival of a baby.  Mary birthed hope.

We talk often about the Holy Spirit.  But perhaps we’d be better to say a Holy Hope.  For a Holy Hope operates in her life: first intimately in her heart, then in conversation, and finally in proclamation.

What hopes do you carry in your heart, too tender to share?  What hopes do you dream about with friends, still new and fresh?  What hopes can you proclaim, regardless of what others think?

Just as I want to reframe the annunciation scene as a moment of intimate self-knowledge, I think we can find another message in Mary heading out to see Elizabeth.  Our tradition - and I’ve done this too - portrays Mary running in some fear to Elizabeth; “she made haste to the hill country.”

We could certainly read this story as one of a pregnant teenager running away from home out of fear for what her family and her fiancé would say and, even more, do.  Plenty of women around the world today face such fears. But Mary is one of the most developed female characters in the Bible, one whom we see at several points in her life; depicting her as afraid and fearful underscores some problematic ideas of women’s autonomy.  (Human Trafficking insights?)

Progressive Christians have long realized how a focus on Mary’s virginity sets up problems about women’s sexuality; in a similar way, I think focusing on Mary’s fear creates problems about women’s autonomy.

So, if not for fear, what else could make Mary run with haste to the hill country?  Joy. Mary came to know of the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth. Perhaps an angel, perhaps gossip in the village, perhaps her own insight from her last family gathering.  But I think joy hastened Mary’s steps, excitement moved her, a need to share the hope.

The Gospel’s description of the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth suggests that Mary came to support Elizabeth.  The angel told her, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Elizabeth could certainly have needed support.  Just before our readings today came a scene in which Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah hears his wife will become pregnant; this shocks him so deeply that he won’t speak again until the birth of his son.  Which means Elizabeth lived in a remote village, with a disgraced priest of a husband, who remained emotionally distant during her high-risk pregnancy. Her husband’s silence left Elizabeth with no one with whom to share her growing joy.

So, Mary ran with haste with her own amazing insight: not to tell Elizabeth she was pregnant, but to celebrate with her the joy of her news and the miracle of an impossible possibility.  Joy, not fear, quickened her feet; a desire to confirm Elizabeth’s good news.

And just as she approached, Elizabeth saw Mary’s flushed face and something inside her realized Mary’s own pregnancy.  Elizabeth confirmed Mary’s unspoken hopes; “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

This conversation between Mary and Elizabeth forms the crucial bridge between Mary’s secret hope and her public witness.  We know the power of such conversations with dear friends; the people who help confirm our hopes, the friends who hold our joys, the conversations which nurture our dreams.

In this case, Mary and Elizabeth help each other recognize the Holy Hopes in their situations.  Each gave the other what they most needed: community and connection. Mary and Elizabeth experienced isolation - Mary with a hope too tender to share, Elizabeth with a husband too silent in the moment of her greatest need for companionship.  Mary remained through the remainder of Elizabeth’s pregnancy; remained through the husband’s silence; only leaving when Zechariah spoke again after the birth of his son. Together, Elizabeth and Mary made a community of hope. And each helped the other see the connection between what they experienced and the grand project of God; as Elizabeth said to Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Through conversation they connected each other to the larger story of God’s salvation.

What hopes do we nurture in our friendships?  How do we reach out to form community and connection?  Who do we help to know themselves as blest?

The Holy Hopes growing in Mary and Elizabeth moved them to realize that God would keep the promises of liberation.  Like the person who wrote our morning psalm and countless people before, Mary sang of the confidence that “My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”

Sometimes I think the demur image of Mary I grew up on - Our Lady of the Downcast Eyes - was a patriarchal distraction from her revolutionary words.  Her God scattered the proud; and when she sang this did she look to Elizabeth, so often teased by others for her barrenness? Her God cast down the mighty from their thrones; did she look at the oppressive soldiers of King Herod and the legions of Romans?  Her God filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty; while she sang did she bring food to the rural poor she lived among? Demur hopes did not shape Mary’s song; rather, she spoke with a revolutionary confidence in the power of her God.

The Magnificat not only pointed to the revolutionary project of God, not only linked Mary and Elizabeth to it, but proclaimed the trustworthiness of God.  None of these promises seemed true yet - the proud still strutted, the kings still oppressed, the hungry still wept for emptiness. But Mary could so trust in God that she could hope in what she did not see.

And in this we see the power of God to work through people forming community and connection.  The friendship of Elizabeth and Mary put the wind in her lungs to sing. That Holy Hope carried her into an uncertain future with profound confidence.

I love that four women lit our Advent Candles this morning; four who’ve know each other for a long time, four who’ve helped each other sing and hope and celebrate and cry.  Like Mary and Elizabeth, they witness to the power of friendship to make us lift our voices in hope.

Who can help us sing of our hopes?  Who can fill our voices with revolutionary confidence?  What friendship can move us to proclaim God’s liberation even when it remains unseen?

Mary and Elizabeth can be our spiritual models of how to gestate hope in our spirits.  Like Mary we can move from a tender, intimate wonder; to a shared conversation that knits us in community and connects us to God; to a profound proclamation because of friendship.

This Advent open your hearts to angelic voices.  Share your hearts in deep friendship. And let loose your tongues in revolutionary hope.  For together we can be transformed by Holy Hopes. Alleluia and Amen.