an engraving of Elizabeth and Mary clasping hands and looking at each other. They wear voluminous renaissance clothing, and there are towers and rooftops in the background.

The Second Sunday of Advent (Year W) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 4 December 2022 | Genesis 17:15-22 | Psalm 78:1-7 | Romans 8:18-25 | Luke 1:39-45

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who fills us with your spirit calls us to carry hope in community.

This is our second week using A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church by the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney. So I’ll say something about this special resource to build on what Holly said last week, and then we’ll dig into today’s Gospel reading about Mary and Elizabeth’s visit.

So: A lectionary is a group of Bible readings picked out to use at certain times, such as the Sundays of the church year. We normally use one called the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings. With Bishop Jennifer’s permission, we’re using a different lectionary for the season of Advent. This one highlights the stories and perspectives of women in scripture, both in what passages are chosen to read and in and how Gafney translates them.

I really value this shift in perspective. While we believe that God loves all people and created all people in God’s image, human history has made it so that we tend to focus on some people’s stories and some people’s value above others. Because of the cultures and power dynamics that existed when it was written, the Bible tells a lot more men’s stories than women’s. That isn’t surprising.  

But what did surprise me is what Dr. Gafney found as she compared the whole Bible with the selections we normally use. She says: “women are even less well represented in [the lectionaries] than they are in the Biblical text.”

Proportionally, the ancient texts of the Bible spend more time with women than the parts that churches picked out in the 20th century to read together in worship. I would have hoped that as both our culture and our Church have learned to value women differently, our readings would reflect that shift, but alas, they don’t.

It turns out that we still have trouble valuing women and women’s stories in our Church. We still carry a lot of bias with us that we may not even recognize. And that means that sometimes we need to do some re-balancing in order to appreciate what God is doing in the world and in order to align ourselves more fully with God’s love for all of us.

So I invite conversation about the lectionary readings this Advent—I’d love to know how these readings are sitting with you, what you love about them, what lifts your spirit, what causes discomfort, and what questions arise for you.

In her introduction, Dr. Gafney describes the point of her women’s lectionaries for preaching. She says, “The task of preachers is to proclaim a word—of good news, of liberation, of encouragement, of prophetic power, of God-story, and sometimes, of lament, brokenness, and righteous rage. These lectionaries will provide a framework to do that and attempt to offer some balance to the register in which the word has often been proclaimed.”

So with that framework in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel. Let’s see what word of good news, what lifegiving piece of God’s story, what prophetic power we might find in today’s story of Mary and Elizabeth.

It’s a meeting of two cousins, two pregnant women, two people brought together to share a secret hope about what God is doing in the world. Elizabeth is old; like her ancestor Sarah, she had given up hope of carrying a child. Mary doesn’t have a husband, and her pregnancy is a scandal. Neither of them expected to be expecting this way.

But Mary and Elizabeth are God’s partners in changing the world. They are the mothers of salvation.

In Dr. Gafney’s commentary on today’s readings, she asks us to reconsider what bearing children means in the stories of women like Sarah, Mary, and Elizabeth. She notes that sometimes with scripture’s annunciation stories, we end up reading women as “incubators” who are mostly valuable because they give birth to important sons.

Dr. Gafney invites us to shift perspective and consider “the symbolism of children for a world that continues under God’s care no matter the present circumstances.” It’s a broader view of these annunciation stories. It’s not just that one woman here or there changes her own standing by having a miracle baby, it’s that welcoming a child implies trust that God’s love will continue into the future. Welcoming a child brings people together to nurture and adore and teach and provide and rejoice.   

When I start to think in this direction this Advent here at St. Paul’s, I reflect on the hope God offers us, and on the gift of community that spans generations. We are part of the same hope that Mary and Elizabeth share in today’s Gospel, the hope that God is changing the world and lifting up the lowly. We are part of the same community that began with Mary and Elizabeth, the community that is filled with the Holy Spirit and rejoices to welcome Jesus among us.

So today I invite us to consider how blessed Mary and St. Elizabeth might be our teachers, and what this beautiful moment between them might have to offer us. Mary and Elizabeth keep hope alive, and they do it together in community, in holy friendship.

I invite us to reflect today on hope and community. I wonder where you find hope most difficult to sustain, and where you find it flourishing and blooming on its own. I wonder how you nourish the hope you have, and who helps you carry it. And if you are struggling to find any hope in this season, Holly or I can sit down with you and see if we can find some together.

And I wonder how community, here at St. Paul’s or elsewhere, has given you joy and strength. I wonder where you have been called to holy friendships. I wonder whose heart leaps for joy when you come into the room, and who gets that response from you. I wonder how you are holding hope in community.

That’s our call in the church this Advent: to carry hope in community. And it’s a difficult calling. There is a lot of bad news in the world; there’s a lot of uncertainty about money and politics and the climate; there’s a lot of hate; there are a lot of very real reasons to worry about the future. This is true for us, and it was true for Mary and Elizabeth as Jewish women living in an empire that hated them and would eventually murder both of their children. The world’s violence is real, and there are reasons to be afraid.

But Mary and Elizabeth held hope anyway. Not knowing what would come after—not yet knowing either death or resurrection—they rejoiced together in that moment. They carried God’s hope for the future in their own bodies.

And we can too, as we find our own callings. Mary and Elizabeth were called to carry God’s hope in the world as mothers, and that might be part of the call for some. Not all of us are able to bear children, and not all of us who are able will choose to; there are many other ways to embody hope.

We can practice hope by using our imaginations to envision a better world and using our actions to bring that world a little closer. We could practice hope by caring for children and young people (whether or not they’re our own children), listening to what they care about, and acting in line with hope for their future.

We can practice hope by sharing from the abundance we have, in trust that there will be enough for us in the times to come. We can practice hope by caring for “this fragile earth, our island home” well, even when we don’t know what happens next.

We hold hope by doing it. We don’t have to feel optimistic all the time or ignore our fear and grief in order to do hope. Activist Mariame Kaba likes to say that “Hope is a discipline.” It’s a practice. It’s worth struggling for. And we hold onto hope not by squashing down all the bad feelings, but by acting on hope together, even amid uncertainty. Paul says we hope for what we do not see. It’s an act of faith.

And for Mary and Elizabeth, hope was an act of defiance, an act of rebellion. Hope in God’s salvation meant that the empire wasn’t the ultimate authority; another regime was on the way. It meant liberation was possible for everyone. It means that God’s transforming love reaches everywhere, and the empire no longer gets to tell us who is unworthy, who gets thrown away, who goes hungry, who gets silenced. It means casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, as Mary will say.  

In this family visit between two pregnant women in Palestine, hope was a conspiracy. Have we talked about where the word “conspiracy” comes from? In Latin, “con” is “with” or “together” and “spirare” is “to breathe.” So conspiring is breathing together. Mary and Elizabeth are breathing together in this moment. And Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit; God’s own breath is breathing right there with them. The Holy Spirit is in on the conspiracy. The Holy Spirit is part of this shared moment of dangerous joy.

God is present, helping Mary and Elizabeth to carry hope, and God draws them together in community. They need each other. They need to take this moment and breathe together in order to hold the hope God has entrusted to them. They need to strengthen and uplift each other with inspired joy now in order to face what’s coming. Carrying this hope is so difficult that neither one of them is asked to do it alone; God calls Mary and Elizabeth to a holy friendship.  

Last week we read the story of how the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth; let’s not forget the part of that story where Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth is also pregnant. The news of Jesus’ birth—this message that upends Mary’s life and promises to transform the whole world—it also includes this gentle guidance towards community. Gabriel tells Mary: “Elizabeth is pregnant too.” And that means that when Mary is called to a revolutionary hope, called to do something impossibly brave, she is also called to community. She is not alone.

The angel Gabriel tells Mary where to find her next co-conspirator. Joseph will become a co-conspirator along with Elizabeth. And eventually, Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and all of Jesus’ followers will join in. They will all breathe with Mary and help her to bear the hope of Jesus’ coming reign. And so will we. Elizabeth was the first member of this community to breathe with Mary and the Holy Spirit, and now we’re all part of it.

We carry this hope together in community. God calls us to a dangerous and difficult hope—and God calls us into community to make it possible. God calls us to holy friendship. God calls us to care for each other in grief and lift each other up in joy, and that is where we find the strength we need.

God calls us to breathe together with the Holy Spirit. And in that act of breathing together, we claim our moments of peace amid the chaos; we find what it takes to carry hope through this world against all odds.     

Friends, in this Advent season of watching and waiting, I pray that we will find that space to breathe with the Holy Spirit and with our co-conspirators. I pray that we will find the community we need to hold hope. I pray that we will find grace to follow our teachers Mary and Elizabeth, and that with them we will carry God’s hope in our bodies and breathe with the Spirit more and more deeply.

Amen.    

A 15th-century German engraving of The Visitation (Mary and Elizabeth’s visit) accessed through the Met Gallery and in the Public Domain. Master ES (German, active ca. 1450–67) The Visitation, 15th century German, Engraving; sheet: 6 3/16 x 4 11/16 in. (15.7 x 12 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1922 (22.83.2) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/336137

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