A Refuge of Welcome

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 19, 2021 +

Text: Luke 1:39-55

At this point in the calendar, all our attention seems to be focused on Christmas.
Commercials are telling me I only have a few days left to buy my gifts.
Cheesy movies and TV specials are filling the screens.
The airports are clogged with travelers going to see family and loved ones.
Even our lectionary calendar is anticipating the birth of Jesus with the focus on Mary in today’s gospel reading, almost ahead to Friday night and the familiar story we all know and love.
But as much as I love talking about Mary and her song that is still just as revolutionary today as it was 2000 years ago, today I feel drawn to focus on the other main character in that gospel lesson—Elizabeth.

We don’t talk much about Elizabeth in church.
This is the only Sunday in our three-year lectionary cycle where she even appears, but she plays such a crucial role in Luke’s gospel.
We are told that Elizabeth, who is married to Zechariah, is from a priestly lineage and the couple lived blamelessly before the Lord.
They are both advanced in years and were never able to have a child.
But despite their age, God does what should have been impossible and gives them a child whom we know as John the Baptist.
Luke also tells us that Elizabeth is related to Mary, perhaps her aunt or a cousin.
So, when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will have a son, we are told that Mary said “yes” and agreed with this audacious plan.
But then she went out “with haste” to her relative Elizabeth.

I was wondering this week why Mary was in such a hurry to go to Elizabeth’s house.
A young, pregnant girl traveling this long journey by herself, why does she make such a perilous trip?
I wonder if, when Mary realized the implications of what Gabriel had told her, she was overwhelmed with fear.
Fear not only of having a child, but having a child as an unmarried girl in a small town.
Fear that she would be ostracized, that her fiancé, Joseph, would leave her.
Fear that she would be kicked out of her home or far worse.
Fear that an angel just appeared in her living room and changed her life forever.
So perhaps Mary felt she had no choice but to flee and seek the protection of her cousin Elizabeth.

And when Mary arrives at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house, what a greeting she receives: “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth proclaims, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
A welcome so beautiful, so complete that it quelled the fears that were bearing down on Mary.
I wonder how deeply Mary needed such a greeting, such a blessing in her life.
How much she needed someone to recognize and celebrate what God was doing in her life.
How much she needed someone to just welcome her, nourish her, love her.
And I wonder if it was only when Mary felt the comfort of refuge in her family’s house that she felt safe enough to sing of the glories of God who was doing extraordinary things through her.
Perhaps it was only when she felt secure and welcome in a home that she could allow herself to dream of the new world that God was creating through her.

So, while I love Mary and while we will join with her and sing her song again this morning, today I’m especially thankful for Elizabeth.
This woman who could have believed what everyone was probably saying about her behind her back, that her life was essentially over and that she had nothing left to offer.
This woman who, Luke tells us, felt shame at not living up to the expectations of her society.
But rather than give into those assumptions, rather than letting shame and despair weigh her down, Elizabeth looked for what God was doing in her midst and used all she had to provide a place of welcome not only for her own miraculous son who would point us to Jesus, but to the very Mother of God herself.
She believed God would fulfill the promises for her and for the whole world.

Normally on this day when we sing Mary’s song, you would probably hear me preaching about how we should be like Mary and live into her God-given dream as we reshape the world with her and her son.
In fact, I did preach that sermon this summer when we celebrated the feast of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.
It’s a song that speaks to the very core of what it means to be the Church.
But today, I wonder if we aren’t also called to be like Elizabeth.
Called to use our lifetime of experience and faithfulness in following God to watch for where God is still working in us and around us.
Called to demonstrate our trust in God by creating a place of welcome for the marginalized, fostering a space where the least likely people—like an unwed pregnant girl from a backwater town—can dare to dream about what God can and will do in our midst.
Called to create community from those who have none, to be a place of welcome and nurture and love.
Called to trust that God will do what God has promised.
Called to see the fulfillment of God’s promise among us and do whatever we can to bless it and help it take root in our world.
Because while Mary sings the song the church dreams about, Elizabeth co-creates that song by providing a space, a community where these dreams can be dreamed of, watching for where God is turning the world upside down.

One of the things I have most loved about being your pastor during our time together has been the desire of this congregation to be a place of welcome for this community.
Not just for the visitors who come to worship for the first time and feel the open arms of a welcoming family, but also for our neighbors who come here all throughout the week.
Our neighbors who come to nurture children and care for elders.
Who come here to learn to make music or produce quilts or hone their gardening skills.
Who come here seeking support and recovery.
Who come here and find a welcome that specifically mentions and celebrates the beautiful identities they’ve been forced to hide in so many churches.
And I cannot help but thinking today how this congregation has lived into the example of our ancestor Elizabeth as we, who may seem to those around us to be past our prime and even close to death, we who may feel the pain of disappointment in declining numbers, we have allowed those assumptions or expectations to overwhelm us, rather we have defiantly trusted in this God of promise and hold within us miraculous new life.
That we are literally building a place for hope and opportunity to be born and dwell.
And I wonder if perhaps—through our faithful witness, through our expansive welcome, through the community we will build here—we will hear the fiery lyrics of new songs that will be sung about our God who is doing new things and even turning the world on its head because of what is being made possible in this place—and we will bless that song and the ones who will sing of God’s glory.

After Elizabeth gives birth to John later in this first chapter of Luke’s gospel, we never hear from her again.
Unlike Mary, we will not see her interact with her son after he grows into adulthood.
And I would imagine that, given her advanced age, even as she nurtures new life within her, Elizabeth knows full well that she will not live to see all the things her son will do—how he will point to the savior of the world, how he will denounce kings and elites, how he will prepare a way in the wilderness.
I think Elizabeth knows she will not see the final fulfillment of the promises God has made to her, to Mary, and to the whole world.
But that doesn’t mean she won’t do her part.
But that doesn’t stop her faithful witness and willingness to do all she can to bring that promise to fruition.
That doesn’t stop her from welcoming her young cousin and blessing her and the hope she bears within her.

Here as another Advent draws to a close, as we await a renewal of the promise whose fulfillment we long for but know we may not fully see, I am thankful for the witness and example of our foremother Elizabeth.
Who refused to give in to despair or limitations, but did everything she could to partner with God in creating something new.
Who welcomed Mary into loving community and encouraged her to grapple with the glories God has in store for her and for all people.
Who, even though he was not yet born, praised and blessed our Lord Jesus, trusting in the promise and hope his birth holds for this weary world.

So, as we seek to emulate the faithful witness of Elizabeth, allow me to close with a poem written by Jan Richardson about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

A Blessing Called Sanctuary

You hardly knew
how hungry you were
to be gathered in,
to receive the welcome
that invited you to enter
nothing of you
found foreign or strange,
nothing of your life
that you were asked
to leave behind
or to carry in silence
or in shame.

Mary and Elizabeth.
Tentative steps
became settling in,
leaning into the blessing
that enfolded you,
taking your place
in the circle
that stunned you
with its unimagined grace.

You began to breathe again,
to move without fear,
to speak with abandon
the words you carried
in your bones,
that echoed in your being.

You learned to sing.

But the deal with this blessing
is that it will not leave you alone,
will not let you linger
in safety,
in stasis.

The time will come
when this blessing
will ask you to leave,
not because it has tired of you
but because it desires for you
to become the sanctuary
that you have found–
to speak your word
into the world,
to tell what you have heard
with your own ears,
seen with your own eyes,
known in your own heart:

that you are beloved,
precious child of God,
beautiful to behold,
and you are welcome
and more than welcome here.

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