December 20, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Luke 1:39-46

Blessed Are the Terrified; They Will Sing the Power of God

One time I was flying into Chicago after visiting my parents in Cleveland. I made this trip several times a year, and it was an easy hour flight between Hopkins and Midway. But on this evening, as we were making the descent into Chicago, the plane began this slow, swooping swinging back and forth.

Okay. I thought, Maybe there will be an announcement? Instead, a pensive silence settled into the cabin. Usually the moments before landing are kind of noisy, but not tonight. The only sound was the Eastern European woman next to me who was praying the rosary. It felt like everyone was thinking the same question, Um, is this supposed to happen?

As you might surmise, it turns out that it was. A little while later, everything went smoothly with the landing. But in those moments of swinging, I remembered that amusement park ride —the viking ship. Have you seen one of these? It’s a big ship, on land, that swings back and forth; you sit in rows facing each other. You’re at the top for a moment then it whooshes down and suspends the other side in the air. The thrill comes in feeling your stomach drop. Well I loved that ride, and this was not all that different.

As we were swinging into the city, the lights from the skyline were reflected in Lake Michigan, and there was something undeniably exhilarating and beautiful.

I remember this experience because of the two things it made me realize. First, I found myself thinking, “This would be so cool, if only I weren’t scared.” Second, “I don’t know if I am going to die here, but I don’t want to die scared.” I still don’t want to die scared. First, fear is a feeling that rises up in a flash like it or not. But then, fear is a choice. If only it were so black and white.

We know the favorite instruction of those angels in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” If only it were so simple. For one thing, fear can be important. Fear triggers the mechanism that makes us pay attention. Fear can save our lives, for a minute. Fear can tap into our vivid imagination, the same part of our being that sources our creativity and illuminates our sense of what is possible.

Maybe it’s true that first fear is a feeling, then it’s a choice, but it’s not the same choice for all of us. We don’t all face the same threats or take the same risks. It’s one thing for me to choose to overcome a fear, but how can I tell you to do that? If there are bombs falling in your neighborhood, if you are dealing with aggressive cancer, if your child is being held hostage, how do I get to tell you, “Do not be afraid”? But what if it’s the truth and those angels are right…

The thing about our fear, it keeps changing. It would be one thing if fear could be like our wallet. If it could be something we always carry with us, we always know what it contains, and exactly where it is. We could hold onto it and not take it out until we need it. The problem is that fear does not behave this way.

Fear does not stay the same. It can calcify, and harden, and turn into a heavy weight we have to carry around. Or worse, fear can turn into hate which can turn into horror. So it’s no wonder we look for soothing reassurance, some reasonable answer to fear. That makes sense. But is that really the best we can hope for? What if our fear could turn into something so much better?

Today we are continuing our Advent series on expectation. Expectation is a feeling charged up with complexity. On the one hand, when you expect, you have an inkling of what is going to happen. On the other hand, there is the possibility it won’t turn out that way at all. Expectation holds together knowledge and mystery, urgency and fullness, excitement and fear.

Our Gospel story begins when Mary leaves in a hurry to visit her cousin Elizabeth. In the previous scene, the angel appeared to Mary and informed her that she is pregnant with the Messiah. She says exactly two things. First, “how can this happen since I am a virgin?” Then she says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

You’ve got to believe, Mary is terrified. Becoming the mother of God would be frightening all on its own, but there’s also the concern about whether the baby will live. There’s also the concern about whether she will live, whether her family will throw her out. Mary is in serious trouble. She travels to see Elizabeth, and on the way, I bet she’s rehearsing what to say. How is Elizabeth even going to believe her?

Then when she shows up, and Elizabeth opens the door, she doesn’t have to say anything. Now it feels like we can settle in for the happy ending. Surely Elizabeth will take Mary in her arms and stroke the back of her hair and promise “It’s going to be all right. Let’s calm down and have a quiet cup of tea.” That would be a lovely ending, don’t you think?

Instead, there is nothing quiet about this scene. Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, and the child in her womb leapt for joy. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she looked at Mary, and blessed her right out loud: “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?… Blessed is she who would believe there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

What just happened.

Elizabeth looked at Mary, blessed her fear, then something in Mary changed from faithful resignation to the thrill of the Spirit at work in the world. In verse thirty eight, Mary tells the angel, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Now when she speaks, she sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” It is God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. It is God who sends the rich away and fills the hungry with good things… Get ready, the world is about to turn!

Blessed are the frightened. Their fear can turn into the fire of justice and mercy.

Blessed are the terrified; they will sing the power of God.

It doesn’t seem like it would happen this way. It seems like when a person is afraid, their fear would be answered by the blessed assurance of God. Calm down. It’s going to be okay. But what if it’s so much better than okay? What if Mary teaches us that our best hope is not to calm down and feel safe, but our best hope is that our soul could magnify the Lord, our song could amplify the promise of God?

In the same way, it seems that when people become parents, their perspective should narrow to focus on their own baby in their own home. How can you think about the world at a time like this? You’ve got a baby to take care of. It seems to me like this narrowing of perspective would be a helpful feature in our human evolution, and indeed, I’m sure this happens in many families.

But here’s the thing. The opposite also happens. You see this when people who are parents play a leading role in work for social change. When you ask them, “Why do you care about this?” they tell you, “Because I have kids, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to buy food for them.” “Because I don’t want my children to grow up in a neighborhood torn up by violence.”

I don’t have children myself, but I have been told that having a child is like having your heart leave your body and go walking around in the world.[1] Of course, that is terrifying! Look at this baby and see the world he will live in. Look at the world and see the little children.

The world is a dangerous place for children, so it’s no wonder we find arguments for safety so compelling. But what if Mary is onto something with her song? What if there is a possibility so much greater than safety?

In response to the recent spike in gun purchases, my friend LeAnne who is a mother and a pastor offered this reflection on her facebook page:

“If we are in public and something should happen, I will do everything in my power to move my children out of harm’s way, I would shield them with my own body, as any parent would, but I am under no illusion that any gun I might carry, as a parent whose arms and attention are filled with my children, would likely protect them from a bomb’s blast, or someone loaded up with their own personal arsenal…

Of course we could die. I think about that every time I buckle their seat belts and head out in our car. But neither will I cower in my home, paranoid of what might happen, and teach my children not to live life and love others. I will teach my children to love all people and treat them with respect… I will teach them to be proactive in their peacemaking and compassion…”[2]

Mary’s song proves that fear does not have to turn into hate. Fear does not get canceled by increased security measures or by an abundance of caution. You want to transform fear, it’ll need to get blessed and met with an abundance of love. We do this, we’ll see fear turn into the exhilarating thrill of the Magnificat of swooping into the city over the water, while the lights are breaking forth, while the woman next to you is whispering “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Behold the vision of God!

But who’s going to say the blessing? Who’s going to open the door to the people who are frightened and greet them by saying, “Blessed are you.” Because if that’s not the church’s job, I don’t know what is. That is exactly our call. Blessed are the terrified; they will sing the power of God. Get ready, the whole world is about to turn. Amen.

[1] This was explained to me by teacher and mother Kelly McLaren-Olin, and it seems she was paraphrasing the quote by Elizabeth Stone: “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

[2] This quote is an excerpt from Pastor LeAnne Clausen de Montes’ facebook post December 8, 2015. Used here with permission.

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