The Miracle of Encouragement Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (Advent 4. 2015) Luke tells us this morning that a pregnant Mary goes to spend some time with a relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth greets Mary enthusiastically, and Mary sings a song, the Magnificat. Elizabeth welcomes Mary with “Blessed are you among women,” which is what Uzziah said to […]
The Miracle of Encouragement
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (Advent 4. 2015)
Luke tells us this morning that a pregnant Mary goes to spend some time with a relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth greets Mary enthusiastically, and Mary sings a song, the Magnificat.
Elizabeth welcomes Mary with “Blessed are you among women,” which is what Uzziah said to Judith after she defeated their mortal enemy. Luke imagines Elizabeth welcoming a woman with a blessing that was given to another woman in their sacred history.
And Mary responds by singing a song which is an adapted version of the song Hannah sang when she realized she was pregnant with Samuel.
So, when we see this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, we are seeing centuries of women overcoming adversity and finding hope and joy in the midst of difficulty. The story is so much more powerful when we know the stories it is built upon.
When Mary sings: My soul magnifies our God and my spirit rejoices in God my savior who has looked favorably on a lowly servant,
she isn’t just celebrating her pregnancy, nor is she prognosticating about what the future might hold. She is remembering that women and oppressed people have been where she is, and they got through it and they contributed something important to human history, and she is affirming her place in that strong lineage of survivors.
And that’s basically the gospel, isn’t it? We all go through rough times, and sometimes things happen that are unfair, unjust, depressing, hurtful, and yet, we can affirm that even at our lowest state we are loved and worthy.
In the story, both Mary and Elizabeth are experiencing different kinds of difficulty. Elizabeth hasn’t been able to have children, which in her culture would have made her an object of pity. She finally is having a child, but now her husband is infirm. She’s a caregiver to her husband and she’s a midlife expectant mother. And now, she’s the support system for a young Mary as well.
Mary has conceived her child out of wedlock. That’s not so scandalous today, in fact, people choose to do so now and it’s really no body’s business. Whenever and however someone chooses to start a family is cause for celebration; but that wasn’t always the attitude of every society. In hind sight, we affirm, as did Elizabeth, that Mary’s child was blessed and would be a blessing to the world. But that was not the initial reaction of most people to the news of an unwed, teenage mother.
So, Mary…younger, perhaps stronger and more energetic, can help Elizabeth. Elizabeth, older, presumably wiser, more experienced, can help Mary. They come together to support each other in a moment of challenge. They affirm each other, bless each other, love each other, and in their togetherness, in their bonds of love, they help each other through a tough time. They are healers to one another.
That’s what the church is. We go through tough times, but we don’t have to go through them alone. We can affirm one another, celebrate the potential we see in others even when we can’t see much of it in ourselves, we can know that beyond the difficulty there are opportunities, possibilities, grace equal to every need. And so we encourage one another, like Mary and Elizabeth did, and that encouragement helps us find miracles in our own lives.
And Luke is encouraging his community with this story. Luke does something very odd for a writer in a patriarchal culture. He creates a vignette where the only speaking characters are women, and the people they quote are women. Women did not have much power in Luke’s world. In fact, they had almost no status apart from a man, but in this story women are heroes and they recall stories of other women heroes. Women are the ones with voice in this narrative. Women, the oppressed, the marginalized, the often silenced, are the ones to witness and prophecy and pray and sing and counsel in Luke’s story today. The “Other,” the left out, the disenfranchised…that’s who is favored by God and who find their voices even when nobody necessarily cares to listen to them.
That’s a word of encouragement to women still, to immigrants, to LBGT folk, to people struggling with their health, to anyone who has ever felt invisible or unheard or undervalued.
Luke was encouraging his community to know that when something is lost, something is also left. When one road is closed, another path is available. When pain knocks us down, hope can lift us up. The moment of disappointment is followed by the moment of new beginnings.
That reminds me of an anecdote I read recently. About a decade ago, a mall Santa in the Midwest had a little boy jump up in his lap. Santa asked him what he wanted for Xmas, and he had a list, but in addition to the Malibu Barbie and the Easy Bake oven…no wait, that was my Xmas list…anyway, in addition to his wish list, he had one more request. He showed Santa a photo of his sister who was too sick to come to the mall. He wished for her to get well.
After the little boy went on his way, his grandmother who had brought him to the mall stepped up to whisper in Santa’s ear to explain that the boy’s sister, Sarah, had leukemia and was in Children’s hospital and wasn’t expected to live long. The medicines weren’t doing much good. She said, “My grandson hopes you have some healing magic; kids, huh? But, it would mean the world to my granddaughter if you could visit her.”
Lady, I’m a mall Santa. This is a minimum wage temp job that I do for fun…is what he may have wanted to say. But instead, he thought of his own children and how devastated he would be if they were sick. He told the woman to leave Sarah’s name with an elf and he’d see what he could do. He half thought he was giving a polite brush-off, but he couldn’t get Sarah out of his mind.
When his shift was over, in his Santa outfit, he went to the hospital. When he walked in the room, Sarah summoned all the energy she could to shout, “Santa!” She and her family around her were visibly exhausted. Santa went up to Sarah, asked her what she wanted for Xmas, and she had list. She also assured Santa that she had been a good girl and deserved these wished for treasures. Santa agreed.
Mall Santa then did something he’d never done before, but he just felt compelled to do it now. He told Sarah, “I want you to do something for me. I want you to focus all your concentration on getting better. I want you to enjoy your Christmas. I want you to imagine playing with all your friends next summer. And I want you to plan to come see me next Christmas at the mall.” She grinned and agreed that she would follow his instructions.
Santa left the room and broke down in tears. He whispered a little prayer for Sarah, and he went home.
A year later, Mall Santa was hard at work again, and one day a little girl jumps into his lap and says, “Remember me?” He didn’t, but then he realized, it was Sarah! He hugged her tight and was delighted to see that she was apparently in remission. In any case, she had lived another year and looked great.
He never saw her again after that, but he never forgot the miracle of meeting her, and of seeing her one more time a year later.
What did he give her that day in the hospital room? Just encouragement. He just invited her to imagine happy times. He gave her permission to hope. He helped her see past the current pain to future possibilities. If she had died 5 minutes after he left, those five minutes would have been joy-filled, and that would have been healing. But she didn’t die, and it’s just possible that his encouragement was part of the healing combination of factors that saved her life.
Mary and Elizabeth encouraged each other. Mall Santa encouraged little Sarah. And we are here to encourage one another. We are here to tell everyone who will listen: You are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake. You are a person of sacred value. You deserve to be happy. And this is the Good News. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
Your love is unconditional and all-inclusive.
And so I am encouraged.
And I will encourage others.