This season of Advent our theme has been “Voices of Courage.” In a variety of ways we have had the opportunity to reflect on this theme – through the Sunday gospel stories in the Bible, through the daily readings in our Advent devotional booklet, and through the messages of how God has been at work made visible on the ornaments decorating our Christmas tree.
As we reflect on voices of courage we might ask: how does a person come by such a positive orientation of life? How does courage emerge in the midst of personal adversity? In the inspiring book entitled, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, the author cites the example of the life of Rosa Parks to help us understand how the power of the human spirit prevails in times of adversity. The author writes, “The life of Rosa Parks offers a telling clue, provided we look beyond the conventional retellings of her experience…We think, because we have been told again and again, that one day Parks stepped onto a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and single-handedly and without apparent preparation inaugurated the civil rights movement by refusing to sit in the segregated section. As one noted speaker on Martin Luther King Day declared: ‘Rosa Parks wasn’t an activist. She was just a woman with her groceries who was tired.”
According to the author, such common descriptions do not tell the true story of Rosa Parks. The truth is that by the time Rosa Parks stepped on that bus and refused to take a seat in the back, she had been a civil rights activist for twelve years, was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and acted not alone but with the support, prayers and friendship of many others who shared her passion for justice and her life-long experience of discrimination and abuse. It was this community of faith and hope, united by adversity and a determination to overcome, that gave birth to the courage of Rosa Parks and people like her.
Nothing fosters hope and courage like the knowledge that others who have faced adversity stand with us and continue to hope and work for a better life and a different world.
This was the experience of Mary, the young, teenage mother-to-be in our gospel story today. Mary did not stand alone. The courage she expresses in her song of hope for a better future emerged from her firsthand experience of facing adversity with the support of others. Without them, Mary’s song would not have been voiced with such poetic and heartfelt words of strength and confidence. In our Advent gospel stories we see how God’s love was at work in the lives of Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah to help Mary feel safe, grow in faith and courage.
When reflecting on the story of Joseph last Sunday we recalled from the gospel of Matthew how God had worked in Joseph’s heart changing his resolve to quietly dismiss Mary to instead offer Mary his acceptance and support. How much Joseph’s change of heart meant to Mary we can surmise from the gospel story we read today. After Mary was told the news by the angel that God was with her and was about to bless her, Mary immediately was troubled with feelings of fear and confusion. Mary knew that this good news of great joy would not win her the favor of her neighbors or of her own fiancé, Joseph. Imagine what it must have felt like to be told that you were about to become a single mother in a time and culture where such news meant certain shame and marginalization. When the angel’s supposed good news spread it would not only ruin Mary’s reputation in her conservative community but it would destroy Mary’s imagined future: a simple, peaceful life raising a family in her hometown alongside her husband-to-be, Joseph. No wonder that immediately after the angel departed Mary, we read in verse 39, “Mary rose and went with haste into the hill country.”
We do not know exactly when Mary learned that Joseph was not going to break off their engagement. But we can imagine what it meant to Mary when she discovered that Joseph chose to follow God’s leading to openly stand with her rather than to dismiss her. She knew that standing with her meant that Joseph was choosing to share in her vulnerability – the judgment, the shame, the rejection that would come from neighbors, from friends and even from family members within their community. That God’s love had moved Joseph to openly accept Mary rather than to quietly dismiss her helped Mary to find courage and hope to face an uncertain future.
Finding courage to face adversity also arose from the love and support Mary found with her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. These were two people Mary hoped she could count on – and she was not disappointed. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth exclaims with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Wow! What an affirmation of Mary and of faith in her future. What a reassuring message of love in contrast to the messages Mary had anticipated and fled from hearing back in her hometown!
It is in response to this affirmation and reassurance from Elizabeth that Mary spontaneously breaks forth with her beloved song of praise to God. Rather than feeling vulnerable, alone and put down in her hometown, Mary felt embraced by the love and hospitality of Elizabeth and Zechariah and affirmed by her cousin’s faith that God could indeed make all things possible. For the next three months, Mary enjoyed the quiet solitude and safety provided by the home and friendship and faith of Elizabeth and Zechariah.
The gifts of love Mary yearned for and received from Joseph and from Elizabeth and Zechariah are the same gifts we yearn for and can share as a community of faith today. As put so beautifully in the words of writer Ann Weems, “Our yearning after God, our hope for a better way, creates possibilities to touch the lives of the untouched, to reach the hearts of the unreached, to heal the wounds of the unhealed, to feed the bodies of the unfed, to accept the personhood of the unaccepted, to love the being of the unloved. Our gifts are gifts of hope. O God, touch, reach, heal, feed, accept and love us that we might love one another.”
As with Mary, we need to experience the gifts of God’s unconditional love so that we, in turn, can love and accept one another. And, as with Mary, simply being told, even by an angel, that God loves and blesses us is not enough. Mary’s voice of courage, her song of joy and gratitude emerged only after she experienced the human touch of the love of God through her relationships with Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah.
I’m reminded of the story of the little boy who pleaded with his mother to stay with him just a little longer before leaving him alone in his dark bedroom. After being quite patient his mother finally got up, turned off the light and said, “Remember, God is with you.” And immediately her little boy replied, “Yes, but I like a God with skin on!”
Tomorrow we gather again to celebrate the good news that Jesus came into the world to put skin on God so all could see the love of God. Yet, even as we look to Jesus, like that little boy, and like Mary, we need to experience the touch of God’s love in our relationships with other people of faith, with one another as the body of Christ today. Like Mary with Joseph at her side, we put skin on God for each other through sharing our stories of pain and loss, expressing our hopes and fears and standing with one another in shared vulnerability. Like Mary with Elizabeth and Zechariah, we yearn for God’s gifts of love as we seek safety and refuge in the hospitality of this faith community: it is here that we can experience together and offer to others the joy of being accepted not dismissed, affirmed not put down, embraced not marginalized. These gifts of love we yearn for are what empower us, like Mary, to grow in courage to trust in God and in one another.
It is when we experience this kind of courageous love with one another that we will experience the joy of Mary’s song, the kind of joy described in a narrative written by a woman who discovered the importance of people connecting their lives in a faith community. In an issue of Christian Century magazine, Nancy Bauer-King wrote:
It took me 45 years to catch on to the value of a faith community. Then, one Sunday, halfway through the first verse of the opening song, I got it. I had completed my first year as a pastor and was standing behind the pulpit singing No. 133 in the United Methodist hymnal: ‘What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.’ I knew the people well enough to have learned some of their personal histories. I knew the hymn well enough to look out over the congregation as they sang. Ruth and Roger both lost spouses to cancer and then found each other. Bernie’s first husband had committed suicide. Ben and Gloria had buried a two-year-old child. Bob’s wife had been killed in an auto accident. Jim’s son was in prison. J.C. had lost an arm in a farm accident. Sandy had recently joined a support group for survivors of sexual abuse. Then it hit me: they were all singing. How could they sing? How could they experience such tragedies, yet come to worship every Sunday and sing? I realized that these people had stories to tell, and not just stories of tragedy. They had experiences of faith that transcended their suffering…by attending worship and singing they were witnessing to their faith in the Christian story of love that overcomes death…On that Sunday 30 years ago, I don’t know who started it, but folks began swaying back and forth, gently leaning against the shoulders of the people next to them as we sang.
Like these people of faith, and like Mary in our gospel story, each of our lives contain unexpected experiences which we cannot anticipate or control. Yet, just as Mary and these other people of faith did not know ahead of time all that they would face, they learned to trust in God day by day and to lean on the love and support of others.
So may God help all of us to keep on trusting in God and leaning on one another as with Mary we courageously give voice to our hopes and fears and sing songs of praise to a God of skin-on love. Amen!