Tuesday, December 11, 2018

How Can We Be Sure of This

Picture to the left entitled "Stations of the Cross" by artist Janet McKenzie depicts a pair, perhaps quite like the Mary and Joseph seeking refuge and relying on one another while finding it. 

"How Can We Be Sure of This"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

December 9, 2018

Luke 1:5-25; Luke 1:57-80

When Mary, to whom I am married, was pregnant with each of our children, I had a job as well – a kind of gestation. It was my job to research names that would be both meaningful and euphonious. It was a big job – a nine-month labor – and I loved it. With each of our children we said we would wait until we knew who they were before we settled on a name, and so each time we arrived at the hospital with a list of four or so first names and a few middle names and several combinations of each. After Fay, our youngest, was born, Mary gently informed me that each time she had known ahead of time which name it would be, but let me continue to believe that I had a part to play in it. I’m sure there are some parallels to Zechariah’s months of silence and Elizabeth’s final say – which Zechariah wisely endorsed. Had he not, perhaps his speech would not have returned.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is highly detailed for two characters who play no significant part in Luke’s narrative after the first chapter. But it is important enough that it is the first story Luke begins after explaining the purpose of the two-volume set – Luke/Acts – which is “to set it down in writing … esteemed lover of God, so that you may see how reliable the instruction was that you received.” The echoes of the story of Samuel – whose parents were barren and advanced in years, songs of praise on behalf of the poor of the land, a family home in the hill country, and the conception and birth of one who would proclaim the coming of an anointed leader who would lead the people in God’s way – these echoes are so many and so strong that many scholars believe the author of Luke invented the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth as the parents of John – giving him an impeccable heritage, descended from both priestly lines, and hailing from the hill-country origins of the Hebrew people. Luke is meant as a bridge of continuity in a chaotic time in the life of the people of Judea. And this opening story is meant to give credence to a messiah – an anointed one – who would overturn the enemy in ways that were unexpected and sharply divergent from the self-righteous or the powerful.

It’s been a lifetime of waiting for Elizabeth and Zechariah. In those days it was thought that any kind of physical malady was a sign that something in one’s life was not up to the standard of holiness or purity. In some ways, it is remarkable that Zechariah was even allowed to enter the holy of holies considering that he was childless in his advanced years. However, it was Elizabeth – the woman – who bore the shame of barrenness. It could be that Zechariah’s fellow priests arranged for him to get the short straw. It was supposedly an honor to enter the most holy place in all creation, but one that also carried some risk. The inner sanctum was filled with incense in part so that the priest who entered would not run the risk of coming face to face with God. That would surely lead to his death – and it was always a man who entered that place, and only once a year. The danger was so real that a rope would be tied around the ankle of the priest who entered there, in case he accidentally glimpsed the visage of the Most High. His body could then be drawn out without risk to anyone else. Still, Zechariah may have waited a lifetime for the opportunity to enter God’s intimate presence. And Elizabeth and Zechariah together had waited a lifetime for a sign that God is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

It had been more than a lifetime of waiting for the Covenant people. No individual can wait more than a lifetime. We each only have one lifetime. But as a people, the waiting can extend well beyond the horizon behind us, and the horizon before us may seem it will never come. It’s easy for us today in a culture that extols the virtues and blessings of individuality and individual achievement that all primal cultures and many highly developed cultures, understand individual identity primarily as an expression of a whole, rather than understanding the whole as an aggregate of individuals. The fortunes and losses of the covenant people hung upon the decisions of its leaders. And for centuries, by the time of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the leaders of the Hebrew people had been cheating on YHWH – flirting with neighboring powers and grinding the people of the land into greater and greater inequity. No wonder the people longed for a messiah who would overturn the tables of the merchants in the temple. The covenant people together had waited more than lifetime – for as long as their collective memory for a sign that God is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

We can understand the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah as a pattern in our own individual lives. Each of us strives to please God in all that we do – even knowing that it is not possible without God’s help, and perhaps that is exactly what God wants from each of us – to embrace our imperfection as a way for God to enter in to our separate lives. And we can understand the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah as a pattern in our life together as a congregation, a people, a movement of followers of Jesus. And together we strive to please God in all that we do – even knowing that it is not possible without God’s help, and perhaps that is exactly what God wants from us as a body of Christ – to embrace our imperfection as a way for God to enter in to our gathered lives.

I’ve been pondering the possibility that the silence imposed on Zechariah by the high messenger Gabriel – God’s Strength – is not a punishment. Instead, perhaps it is an opportunity – a blessing. The silence Gabriel gives is maybe the answer to Zechariah’s question, “How are we to know?” For Elizabeth and Zechariah, how were they to know, given their barren state, that God would act through them to bring about a new thing – an important thing. How were they to know that despite the appearance of some shortcoming that they would be exactly what God needed to advance the knowledge of unconditional love and expectation of justice? Gabriel’s answer seems to be, watch and see. Stop trying to explain it all. Take a pregnant pause and watch what happens. God is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

After another long wait, this time only nine months or so, Zechariah’s speech is freed from its captivity. And his first utterance appears to be a song. And not just any song, but a song first of praise on behalf of the poor of the land. It’s a song about what love looks like in public – a song of justice. And then a song of blessing to the child who will act as the prophetic bridge from past into present. It’s a song of what love looks like in private – a song of intimacy. The first part of the song is a thanksgiving for having been delivered from the hands of our enemies that we might serve God without fear, in holiness and justice, in God’s presence all our days. It’s clear who the enemies were in Elizabeth and Zechariah’s world. They were all too present. They were what today what we might call the one percent. They were the elite who lived off the labor and sacrifice of the common. John’s parents occupied a sort of middle ground in that equation. They were privileged to a degree, but not the elite. They were a lot like us. From a planetary perspective most of us here are highly privileged. At the same time, we do not call the shots. We are subjects of the empire.

But, maybe we’ve been wrestling with the wrong enemies. Or perhaps we have not been wrestling the enemies that are closest to us. Who are our enemies? Steve Garnaas-Holmes names them in his response to Zechariah’s song this week:
Our worst enemies are no one else,
but our own fear, greed and resentment,
our urge to be right and safe and powerful.
They soldier on, as if the war is not over.
But God has set us free
from the enemies of our wholeness,
enemies of life.
We are free to serve, to love, to risk
without fear.
We are free from the traps and tangles in our heads,
the tales we spin of what can't be.

Our fear, already safe on the other side,
still mumbles about impossibilities
while the bird flies through the bars,
the imaginary mountain.

Nothing but the lies in our heads prevents us now
from being the perfect vessel of the Beloved,
being fearlessly forgiving,
being the light in the darkness.
That is who we are now.
We are free.

How do we combat these enemies – the ones we carry inside? Zechariah’s song gives us a hint. How does God combat these enemies? With tender mercy; loving kindness; long suffering patience; generous hospitality; and deep-seated awareness that all is not right in the household we maintain. “How can we be sure?” Perhaps we never can be sure. Perhaps we can only wonder with silent watching, waiting, listening. This is not to suggest that we stop doing all the important things we are doing – but some of them may not be as important as we think – at least not according to God’s view. It is to suggest that we covet every quiet moment, treasure it, and squeeze from it a moment of intimacy with the abiding and demanding presence of God who is awaiting our attention and our silence. The vessel of the Beloved need not speak. Steal some time to be like Elizabeth and Zechariah this week and every week. Carry within yourself a message of hope and forgiveness waiting to be born, and listen deeply for God who is always approaching creation, crossing borders, entering new territory, becoming life.

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