Sunday, January 8, 2023

From Generation to Generation: We See God in Each Other

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. --Luke 1:39-45, 56-58 (CEB)

Holy is God’s name, who shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, for those who honor God. Amen.

Last week I mentioned my extended family on my dad’s side, who, when he died, wrapped their arms around my mother and our family - this extended family of mine. Which is huge!

Every three years we have a family reunion. Over time our numbers, big to begin with, have continued to grow. Generation after generation. Now numbering some 7 generations - maybe you have a family like this, too? These generations who come together every three years to celebrate our ancestors, our history, our sense of humor, our physical attribute (which for my family is a pretty extraordinary nose), and all of the things that make us a family. But, more than anything, we come together because we belong together. We are family. We have been through thick and thin together. Through incredibly hard times and incredibly wonderful times together. They are my family. They know me. They know pretty much everything about me. And I know about them, too. If I show up and something is wrong, they know it. Because we belong together.

Mary and Elizabeth are family like this. They’re blood relatives. Cousins. Just like all of my cousins. But, they’re more than that. They are even more connected because both of them are pregnant by the Holy Spirit. And, at the moment they meet, while our text is not clear that Elizabeth knows that Mary is also pregnant, their babies know. The next generation they are carrying knows that they are kin. That they all belong. Together. 

Certainly, Elizabeth must have sensed Mary’s complex emotions - the fear and the joy and who knows whatever else she must have been feeling. Certainly Mary must have sensed Elizabeth’s joy and awe at the fact that, at her age, she was not only carrying a child, but a prophet who would announce the long-awaited Christ. This is what belonging does. It helps us know one another. Deeply. So that in good times and in bad times, we carry one another’s burdens, celebrate one another’s joys, accompany one another along the way.

Mary and Elizabeth do this. My family and I do this. But here? In this place? Do we belong? Are we committed to this community of faith? 

You and I - all of us -belong to one other. We are made to be together in Christian community. It is a privilege to be in this community. The body of Christ is a reality created by God in Christ in which we are privileged to participate. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks to in his essay, Life Together - the privilege that is the fellowship of faith. 

Bonhoeffer is under no illusion about the difficulty and challenge of living with others in the faith. Yet, he writes, that to share the “physical presence of other Christians” is a “gracious anticipation of the last things.” A foretaste of that community to come. Luther wrote that to be in community with other Christians was “grace upon grace” - the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life, so much of which is spent in the midst of a world that seeks to destroy us. 

If we would only recognize this.

You and I have been chosen to be a part of this community. Not by me. Not by any one else in this community. But by God and God alone. Might it be possible that you are here precisely because this is where God wants you to be?

When we choose to be apart from this community, when we go for a time without truly belonging, not being here, we begin to manufacture an identity from that alienation, from being apart. Perhaps we are busy with other priorities. Perhaps, we move away because we are hurt. Or betrayed. Or feel rejected in some way, unable to trust others. Only trusting ourselves. 

But, as theologian Cole Arthur Riley writes, “a life lived with trust only in the self is exhausting. It is not freedom. It is a yoke that falls helplessly and incessantly upon us.” 

We tell ourselves that no one can or will ever understand us or our complexities. We brag about the fact that we’re a “loner” or “independent.” It’s how we numb those wounds we feel. By elevating ourselves above the community, looking down upon it as frivolous. Or needy. Or less enlightened. Or unimportant. When, in truth, we are simply denying our own need - our need to belong.

Life together is messy. That is a fact. And Bonhoeffer cautions how we are respond when this life together gets messy. And difficult. 

It’s easy, when we’re frustrated by one another, to speak about another “covertly,” as he puts it. To scrutinize another, to judge another, to condemn another, to put another in their place, so that one gains a sense of superiority. This, he writes, “does violence to the other.” 

Instead, he says, we should pray for them. Because, no matter how much trouble they may cause, it becomes impossible to condemn or hate another sibling in Christ for whom we pray. 

‘If only,” he continues, “If only one lets go the exasperation that ‘God did not make this person as I would have made them’ and realizes that God gives us people not to dominate and control, but as a way to find divine love” - only if one lets go of this expectation, “can one find the other person an occasion of joy rather than a nuisance and affliction. The difficult part is to accept that God has not created every person in my image,” he writes. But rather, that “every person has been created in God’s image.” 

In this place. In this community we are known. Our names are known. People know us and know the ugly parts of us. And, yet, we are called to stay. Each one of us. To stay. To see God in one another. When we realize this, when we begin to see the divine in others, we are changed. We begin to see our siblings through the lens of the cross. And recognize that it is we who have failed to serve them.

In this place, our way of being together is a way of being with God. Every relationship, every interaction with one another is mediated by Christ. Bonhoeffer writes, “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ embodies and stamps upon all people.” 

This is how we meet God in community. Through each other.

This was Mary’s experience. As she came to Elizabeth, scared and confused as I’m sure she was. Fearful of what the future might bring, Elizabeth could have rejected her. Could have turned her away. And could have done so legitimately and under the law. 

Instead, Elizabeth saw in her the divine - as did her unborn child - leading her to affirm Mary’s blessedness. Which led to Mary’s song. Our first Advent hymn. The most passionate, the wildest, the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. A song about the revolutionary power of God, to break down the structures that divide us, the barriers that separate us, the walls in our hearts that keep us apart, so that we may belong to God. And to one another. From generation to generation.

May we seek to be like Elizabeth. May we see God in this place. May we see God in each other. Amen.

Preached December 18, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Advent 4
Reading: Luke 1:39-45; 56-58; Luke 1:46-55

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